When the Reverend Dr. Blair Pogue arrived as the new rector at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, MN, she encountered a faith community that rarely discussed God or faith. Blair’s faith journey did not begin within the confines of a church, but through a mentor at a parachurch ministry (Young Life) who introduced her to the teachings of Jesus. The powerful impact of that personal connection to the story and teachings of Jesus stayed with her.
The challenge at St. Matthew’s was clear: “We needed to talk more about God and what He’s doing in our lives.” She needed to help reconnect church members to their faith and encourage them to explore God’s role in their lives. (Blair discusses this process and more on Episode 5.49 of the Pivot Podcast.) She recognized the need to introduce transformative spiritual practices to achieve this.
Blair started by introducing “dwelling in the word,” a practice that allowed church members to actively engage with Scripture. ““We encouraged everyone to engage with Scripture and share what spoke to them.” Through this practice, the congregation began to experience the stories of Jesus and connect them with their daily lives, fostering curiosity, and a deeper understanding of God’s presence.
The congregation was used to receiving their biblical interpretation from clergy, so there was initial resistance. However, Blair emphasized persistence and encouraged participation, eventually winning the congregation over to the idea of exploring Scripture as a communal practice.
The Shift from Asking Church Questions to Asking God Questions
The transition from asking church-related questions to inquiring about God’s role in their lives was pivotal in transforming St. Matthew’s. As easy as it was for them to talk about their everyday interests and experiences, the community at St. Matthew’s needed help getting comfortable talking about Jesus. Church members had to reorient themselves to think more about God’s presence and activity in their lives, as well as in their neighborhoods and community.
Letting Go and Focusing on God
For real transformation to occur, the congregation had to let go of their reliance on their own wisdom and instead embrace discernment and the leading of the Holy Spirit. This shift required relinquishing control and truly allowing God to guide their faith community.
Blair and her team embarked on a process of deep listening and discernment. They let go of countless ministries and committees that were not aligned with their mission. “I don’t know that God is really excited about committees.” Instead, they focused on the practices that truly enriched their faith and connected them with their neighbors.
A Congregation Rejuvenated
The shift from church-centered questions to God-centered questions, combined with practices that actually connected people’s faith to daily life, transformed the congregation. The leadership team and the entire community were rejuvenated and reconnected with their faith in profound ways.
Blair’s journey at Saint Matthew’s showcases the power of embracing change, shifting the focus from membership to discipleship, and allowing God to lead. By asking a different kind of question and engaging in transformative practices, the congregation discovered the joy of reconnecting with God’s presence in their lives and community.
Finding Energy in God-Centered Practices
Blair emphasized the importance of engaging in practices that facilitate the congregation’s connection with God. Through small groups and in-depth discussions about these practices, church members started to experience the transformative energy of God in their lives firsthand. Notably, the simple act of asking questions and sharing experiences was a catalyst for this transformation.
“I remember one thing I started, that I called ‘Way of Jesus Vocational Groups.’ I pulled people together. I pulled the business people into one group, the social workers and teachers into another. And I tried to get people together with people who are in a similar vocational path, where again, they could dwell in Scripture together but also share their joys and their excitement about their vocation and their challenges and see each other as a support network.”
Embracing Cultural Diversity
Saint Matthew’s was blessed with a diverse congregation that included members from various cultural backgrounds. This diversity played a significant role in opening up the church to God’s Spirit. The influence of global Anglicans and the late Beatrice Garabanda, helped create a culture where talking about God and embracing spiritual practices was more comfortable. “I think they had a lot of influence on all of us, and they really modeled the way of Jesus. So it is very helpful to have people like that in your church.”
Shifting from “Leadership Energy” to “God’s Energy”
Blair acknowledged that the traditional model of church leadership can be taxing. “For years I kind of operated like the cruise ship director and again was trying to bring the energy and I, I loved being a priest, but that was just exhausting.” The shift from leadership-driven energy to helping everyone tap into the energy of the Holy Spirit was liberating. Engaging the congregation in God-centered practices allowed church members to become active participants in their spiritual journeys. “I think when people come alive in God, they really step up in their daily lives and church. They want to tap into that energy.”
Patience and Pitfalls to Avoid
Blair emphasized the importance of patience when leading a church through cultural change. It takes time for people to embrace new ways of connecting with God. Church leaders should also be cautious about ending existing practices too early, as people often need to see a better future emerging before letting go of the familiar.
The Work Continues
Blair is now leading the faithful innovation process as the Canon for Vitality and Innovation for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, focusing on asking God questions regularly and recognizing God’s presence at work. Encouraging church members all over the state to ask those questions and engage in spiritual practices is a central part of her current role. “Every church I go into, I just really try to raise those God questions. The funny thing is, people are really excited to talk about God.”
Saint Matthew’s transformation from a culture centered on church activities to one centered on God’s presence and power is a testament to the power of grassroots, bottom-up change. By focusing on simple practices, patience, and a commitment to asking God questions, the church not only engaged its congregation in meaningful discussions about faith but also created an environment where the energy of the Holy Spirit became palpable.