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Church vitality ministry relies on stories to build trust

As churches care about communities, communities will care about churches

Courtney Stange-Tregear, PNC’s minister for church vitality, believes people change by hearing each other’s stories as a way to build trust and relationships.

Courtney Stange Tregear

Courtney Stange-Tregear

“We need to share stories of our lives with authenticity and humor,” she said.  “Storytelling is as important as taking time to listen.”

So she continues to spend time visiting PNC congregations to listen and learn before sharing resources.

By December, she had met with 17 of the PNC’s 83 churches.

“I find it exciting and intriguing part being social media which we have to acknowledge and factor in,” Courtney said.

She hopes her listening campaign, meeting and getting to know pastors and congregations, establishing trust and relationships, understanding the complexities, interests and contexts of each person so she can be a resource, a curator of human relations, church growth and resources relevant to each church.

By modeling listening and relationship-building, Courtney hopes to exemplify ways clergy and congregations can reach out to their communities.

“Communities will care more about churches when churches care about communities,” she said. “Churches caring about communities is a building block of vitality.”

Situated in secular communities, churches do not need to become secular to be relationship with the secular. 

“As the hands and feet of God, we can be neighbors to our secular neighbors in relationship with them in a way that honors people even if they do not become church members.  It means loving all God’s children, whether they come believe in God or not.”

Courtney is spending time learning about churches and clergy, shared some of her journey in life and the church.

While her extended family was Catholic, her parents were not practicing because they divorced when she was a year old.  She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where her older brother went to Catholic school two years, but she went to a secular school.

“I had no faith experience,” she said.  “In high school, I was “agnostic at best.”

Her interdisciplinary studies with 400 other students at St. John’s College at Annapolis, Md., and a junior year in Santa Fe, N.M., engaged her in a classical liberal arts education through studying original texts, not text books.  There were no exams or lecturers.

“We learned by discussions,” said Courtney.

Through reading canon of western thought in English, philosophy, history, sciences, mathematics and humanities, she also followed Greek through 20th-century thought.  It included writings of early Christians and Renaissance theology. 

“I was exposed to and began to wrestle with Christian thought.  Through wrestling, I discerned a call.  I did not have a conversion moment, but a slow process over several years,” Courtney said.

After graduating in 2000, she taught English in Guangzhou and Nanhai, China, for 18 months and in Seoul, South Korea, for six months.

In 2003, she earned a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and philosophy of theology at the University of Leeds. 

The ecumenical chaplain there encouraged her to experience a community of faith, so she visited Reformed and Anglican churches each week.  Then he suggested she stay in one community long enough so “it is a lived experience” and so “you belong to them and they belong to you.”

Courtney met her husband, Mark, at Leeds.

On returning, she worked in Chicago as a secretary and volunteered at the office of the Public Interest Survey Group.  She continued to attend church.

She went to Baltimore and then back to California.

After a tri-athlete friend was killed while he was biking, she offered to choose hymns and readings for a memorial service for the man, who considered himself “post church.”

“I felt that was what I was supposed to be doing,” said Courtney, who worked a few months at a tech company, what she originally thought she was supposed to do.

She and Mark had a long distance relationship while he continued studies in Leeds.  She joined him there for another year and in 2004, when she was 26, they moved to Boston for her to go to Andover Newton Theological Seminary.

“He could not work for nine months.  We were young and poor, living in a drafty house in Watertown,” she said.

After he received a work visa, he worked at a restaurant and then in an office, while studying at Amherst.

Now he does business intelligence and analytic strategy for an online retail company.

“Seminary for many is a time of deconstruction from fundamentalist beliefs to more progressive beliefs.  I had nothing to deconstruct, because I had no emotional baggage from a faith upbringing,” said Courtney, who had two children while in seminary.

She chose ANTS because it was a place for pastors to learn about pastoral care, preaching, professional ethics and applied ministry. Her field work included being a youth minister in Marshfield, Mass., a chaplain intern at Westborough State Hospital and a supply pastor at Franconia Community Church.

After she graduated in 2009, they moved to California for Mark to work.  In 2010, she was called to Ladera Community Church in Menlo Park as faith formation director.  She had her third child there.

In 2010, she became a UCC Justice and Witness Ministries Justice LED Regional Trainer.

Realizing Mark could work from home, she circulated her file and Zion UCC in Baltimore called her as pastor in 2012. 

That church, which had Evangelical and Reformed roots, was “an average-sized” church with 70 at worship on a Sunday, 60 in summer and 120 on Easter, she said.

While there, she was on the Chesapeake Association Board of the Central Atlantic UCC Conference.  She was also involved in BUILD, an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) community organizing effort, through which she learned the importance of building relationships ant trust.

Courtney also was on the board of Earl’s Place, a 17-bed men’s transitional hou-ing program, where men could stay up to two years and receive wrap around services, such as job training, school, addiction counseling. 

“It had high success and low recidivism,” said Courtney who grew to care about issues homeless men face.

Zion and three other UCC churches had started it 20 years ago, but Zion was no longer involved. She encouraged members to renew that compassionate witness.

While serving on the board of United Ministries, Inc., in Baltimore, a health and human services ministry recognized by the Central Atlantic Conference, and on that conference’s Church Vitality Board, she did strategic thinking on revitalizing churches and began working part-time for the association in church vitality.

She used training from the Center for Progressive Renewal, a Christian consulting and coaching program, to lead workshops for the association.

“Communities are likely to trust churches if churches build trust,” she said. “There is no quick tool.  It takes time, one meeting at a time. We need to understand each other:  What your drives fears? What fires you up?  How can we make change? What makes you tick?”

In the PNC, Courtney seeks to help clergy build relationships, participate in community events, develop meaningful meetings, be aware of their strengths and rethink how they use their time. 

For information, call 206-725-8383 or email


Copyright © February 2017 Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News


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