Dr. Chris Gambill has been with the Center for Congregational Health since its beginning in 1992 and currently directs the Center’s work. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Capella University (Ph.D.).
Emily Viverette: This is the FaithHealth Learning Forum podcast, a podcast series designed to offer insights into the vision of FaithHealthNC, a dynamic partnership between faith communities, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and other health providers focused on improving health. I’m Emily Viverette, Director of FaithHealth Chaplaincy and Education. This particular series focuses on mining the wisdom of key leaders within the division of FaithHealth ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Health.
Today, I’m talking with Reverend Dr. Chris Gambill. Chris is the Director of the Center for Congregational Health. The Center is a ministry of Wake Forest Baptist Health’s FaithHealth division. Chris’s background is in ministry, organizational development, and consulting. He’s also a board certified coach. Chris is a native of North Carolina and a great colleague. Chris, thanks for talking with us today.
Chris Gambill:Thanks for the kind introduction.
Viverette: In my experience, FaithHealth is a strange attractor. I love the stories behind the people who are drawn to this work. I wonder if you might take a few minutes to sketch how you came into what I’m calling this kind of wild and wondrous calling.
Gambill: Sure. This is actually my 15th year almost at the Medical Center, but I’ve actually worked at the Center since it began in 1992. It’s an interesting story, both my story and the Center’s story, they kind of overlap around that, in that the hospital was always known as a place of healing, physical. With the addition of the CareNet counseling centers, it also became a place well known for healing spirit and mind.
In the late 80s, perhaps before, I don’t know for sure, congregations began to call the CPE department, or CareNet, and ask questions like, “Do you have someone who could come and help our church with XYZ problem?” It wasn’t a medical problem, physical health. It wasn’t to do with mental health. It was about the congregation’s health and function.
At the time, the answer was, “Not really. We do have some chaplains that have a lot of skills.” The idea was birthed in kind of a joint venture between the Baptist State Convention North Carolina, and what was then called the pastoral care division, not FaithHealth, the precursor to the FaithHealth division, to create this thing that they call the Center For Congregational Health. That would be the place when these congregations sought help for their kinds of health issues, there’d be a resource for that too. We became that third leg of that stool, I guess, along with CPE, and Care Net, and some other ministries.
I was invited early on to be one of the original consultants, by the then founding president, Dave Odom. We began doing exactly what the Center was set out to do, which was respond to calls from congregations. A lot of our work was around conflict. Eventually it moved into working a lot with church staff teams, helping them work together effectively.
Then the other realm has been around helping congregations really reclaim their sense of mission and engagement with their own communities and worlds. Coaching is also a part of that as well. I work with individual, usually clergy, but sometimes lay leaders, all to try to help congregations improve their health and their capacity to serve and help others.
Viverette: It’s pretty remarkable work. I know that you’ve dealt with some pretty challenging church conflicts, and helped people come out healthy on the other side. I’m curious, you are a native of Wilkes County, is that right?
Gambill: Surry County actually.
Viverette: Surry County, so where in Surry County?
Viverette: Elkin. I’m curious, I’m sure you didn’t start as a church consultant.
Viverette: I’m wondering, how did you kind of wind your way into that.
Gambill: I’m working at a job, like many people today, that didn’t exist when I was young. When I graduated from seminary, there was no possibility for this kind of work. I followed the traditional route of working, right out of seminary, we worked in campus ministry. My wife and I were appointed as missionaries. We went to Taiwan, Republic of China for a few years. Came back, and I started as a pastor, an interim pastor, and some other roles. That was along when the Center got started.
Neil Chafin, who’s one of the godfathers of our movement here and our past, came and did a workshop for pastors in Burlington, I believe, if I remember correctly. I met him there, and he’s the person who actually invited me into this work. He said, “I think you have capacity for this.” I said, “Oh really?” I had no idea what he even meant, but I was willing to take the risk, because I was interested in the kind of work I’d seen him doing, which was the precursor to this.
It was really that, someone recognizing some capacity they thought I had. Then me being willing to take a risk to do that.
Viverette: Very cool. I’ve never asked you this question before, so we’ll see.
Viverette: Is there anything from your kind of work as a missionary that you bring into or has kind of followed you through into the work today?
Gambill: Sure. Actually, I think anyone who lives outside of their own primary culture is changed forever. There’s probably a thousand ways that I don’t even know how to articulate, that, that did affect me. One was the realization that all of us can bear that torch of light, of hope, and restoration. It all starts with what’s inside of us. It’s interesting, because the challenges I see the church facing now are much more like the challenge that the church faced in Taiwan in 1985, as a very, very small minority religion in a dominant culture.
Christianity, in this culture, is shrinking very rapidly, is becoming a minority culture. Actually, in some ways, I didn’t know it, but I was almost being prepared for the future by working as a missionary somewhere else. Helping in those struggling, small Chinese churches. It was helpful because in all those that I worked with in Taiwan, they were almost always places of healing. People who didn’t even understand anything about Christianity would show up at the church’s doorstep and say, “We have a family member who’s sick. We heard that you pray for people. Would you do that?” We would say yes.
Gambill: We’re now in a similar kind of place, where there are literally thousands and thousands of people who have never set foot in one of our churches, and really don’t know what we do. But still have the same physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, and are wondering if there’s a place of healing.
Viverette: It’s kind of remarkable, there are not very many health systems in the country, maybe none, that have birthed a center for congregational health before.
Gambill: True enough. I don’t know of any. I think at the surface, it doesn’t make sense. If you think about it in the context of the evolution of what’s now the FaithHealth division, it does make sense. There’s always been a commitment to the whole person. We’re actually clearer now than even in 1992, that health, what contributes most to health is not what happens inside the walls of a physician’s office or a hospital room, but what happens in the community where people live. The health of congregations is very directly related to the health of communities in so many ways.
It only made sense, in hindsight, that of course we would be interested in health. In fact, it’s almost surprising that no one else figured this out.
Viverette: I’ve always wondered, I mean, it’s been curious to me, a lot of people don’t see the connection between churches and physical health and hospitals.
Viverette: I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more.
Gambill: I would be willing to bet that in an average week, as much caregiving comes out of faith communities than it does out of most medical establishments. The meals, the visits, the trips to the doctor, the things that people are just automatically doing as a normative part of the expression of their faith, it’s remarkable. It’s a place of real community.
A few years ago, I had to have a colonoscopy. A great experience, everybody should do that regularly. But it came at a time when there was no one in my family that could take me. My wife, I think she was out of town, and we kind of scheduled it. I happened to mention it, I had a friend at church, he said, “I’ll be glad,” he’s retired, he said, “I’ll be glad to take you.” I said, “You know you have to spend the morning there and drive me back?” He said, “No problem.” I thought, “Wow, people do actually care about me. They would just do this.”
It was almost a case study in the kind of resources that everybody needs, and fewer and fewer of us have. I meet people all the time, actually some of my own neighbors, and they have no family, they have no faith community, they have really no support system. I don’t know what they do when they have a crisis, or a problem, or a need.
Congregations actually play a critical role, and I have a suspicion it’s going to increase in importance. At the same time, they’re struggling more as institutions. But the caregiving role, the importance hasn’t diminished at all. It’s just a critical part of health. Anytime I go and help a congregation become healthier, I’ve actually helped not just the congregation, I’ve helped the members of that congregation become healthier in so many ways. I’ve made a contribution to that community that they’re in. If they’re unhealthy, they can’t minister and care for the people at their own doorstep.
Viverette: I don’t know that you have the exact words, but how do you define health in a congregation? How do you see that … I mean you’ve said a little bit about how it’s connected to the community health or people’s health. Say a little bit more about those connections.
Gambill: That’s one of the interesting questions that most congregations are wrestling with, is what are the metrics that really define who we are in a helpful way? They’re changing.
There was a time when if you asked someone to define congregational healthy, they’d say, “It’s the B’s.”
Viverette: The B’s?
Gambill: The B’s. Budgets, bigger is better. Baptisms, buildings, God knows we had a huge building.
Viverette: You’re talking mostly about Baptist congregations, right?
Gambill: About 65 percent, but it applies to all of them really. Then the other one was butts, people sitting in the pews, right?
Viverette: Right, right.
Gambill: Attendance. Those were traditional measures of success, and health, and fitness, “Oh yeah, we have so many, we have this much in budget and offerings.”
Well, that’s just not true anymore. There are a lot of vibrant, thriving congregations, who don’t have as much money to work with, who don’t need the buildings they once did, who struggle in other kinds of attendance metrics, because of a changing cultural pattern around attendance and belonging, and all this kind of thing. Yet, they’re doing powerful work.
For me, health is more about being clear about what your called to do, and using your gifts well. That’s a lot of the work I’m doing now with congregations. My theological belief is that if there’s a congregation in place here, that somehow the Creator has put that congregation together in this place at this time for some purpose. But what is it? Often, the congregation’s not clear themselves. They probably were 100 years ago when they were founded or some other time, but you have to ask that question over and over again.
Particularly now, in a world where in most cases the community where the church physically resides is dramatically different. People there in the church may be dramatically different. The needs of the community are very different. You have to kind of start over, and almost pretend like you’re starting out again. It’s like, “God, what is it that you have for us to do?” When churches can get a hold of that and begin to do that well, they can begin to see themselves thrive in new ways, that may or may not fit those old metrics that I mentioned earlier, the B’s, but can still be really significant.
Viverette: It doesseem like we’re in a day and age when churches really are in the need of re-visioning who they are and how they meet the needs in community, and kind of welcome the strengths that communities have around them.
Actually in your role as the Director of Center For Congregational Health, when Gary Gunderson first came on board, you were one of the kind of early adopters of FaithHealthNC, and did a lot of work in developing education, and kind of marketing and sharing this kind of, I think maybe you said it was a movement.
Gambill: That’s correct.
Viverette: It’s not a mission, it’s not an event, it’s actually a movement.
Viverette: You were the one who developed the role of connector.
Viverette: I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about how that came about, how you understand it, and how you see that functioning.
Gambill: Sure. I should preface this by saying that probably the most historic, fundamental mission of ministry, at least of the Christian church, probably other traditions as well, but I can’t speak for it, has actually been around health, holistically. It was out of the Christian history and the Christian movement that we saw the first hospitals, we saw the first medical school. On, and on, and on. Health is not new, and of course, I think I can make a pretty good argument that the vast majority of Jesus’ ministry on Earth was health related in some capacity.
What I discovered was, interestingly enough, that in the early 21st century, where we are, most congregations don’t have a clear sense of that, and often don’t have at least a very structured way of thinking about their role in health and how they do that. A lot of stuff still happens, but not many would see that as fundamental to their purpose and mission.
Early on, we were trying to figure out this thing called FaithHealthNC, and how we could invite churches to kind of grab hold of this in new ways. I knew from my experience in consulting with congregations, that the real currency of making things happen is trust. Churches use consultants when they find someone they can trust. People hire a coach when they find someone they can trust.
The problem I ran into early on was if I showed up in a church in Wilkes County, since you brought that up earlier … I do have family up there. They don’t know me from Adam, so why would they trust anything I said? We did, we had lots and lots of gatherings, mostly clergy, with some lay leaders, different counties, and around, and it was large groups. I realized these people don’t know me, and most of them, probably rightfully so, were suspicious, “Why would a medical center all of a sudden be showing up in my backyard, wanting to invite me to a meeting? What do they want?”
My first thought was we need a different way to relate to these churches, that doesn’t take 10 years, that utilizes an existing web of relationships somehow, that we haven’t had, or if we have, they’ve been lost over the years. That’s where the idea of a connector was born. Finding someone within a community, who knew the community, who was trusted by it, and could work on our behalf, and speed up the whole process of this movement that we were trying to create.
I envisioned it actually more as a, at least initially, as a kind of, not marketing, but an outreach person, who would try to spread the word, spread the message. I did imagine that it would probably evolve into something else later, and it has. I wasn’t clear what that was going to be at the time, but it was just a practical way. I realized that a little bit of money, a little bit of accountability with a person who cared is a powerful combination, so the idea was born.
Viverette: I think we have like 38 now in this region.
Gambill: Is that right? Yeah, there’s a bunch.
Viverette: It’s a bunch. It’s been a really great role, and it has morphed. I think other podcasts have talked about that a little bit.
Viverette: But all because of this kind of nugget of an idea.
Viverette: That’s great. We’ve talked a little bit about the past, and FaithHealth, and how it evolved, and your role. I’m curious if you could say a little bit about what you’re currently working on? I know there’s been some kind of really important grants that have come through, and where you see the future, at least the Center’s part of FaithHealth?
Gambill: Anyone who knows anything about church life at all knows that lots of things are changing. We’re in a time when there’s actually increasing need for help, and decreasing capacity of most congregations to pay for it. Then compounding the difficulty is what’s happening at the judicatory level, whether it’s local, regional, state, or national, is that most of them are shrinking. They’re losing staff and their ability to have programs and resources to help congregations. It’s an interesting puzzle.
The Center’s always worked as a fee for service, not a very high fee, but we’ve paid our own way. No one just gave us a pile of money and said, “Go do good things.” We still operate off that. We’ve never turned anyone down for lack of their ability to pay. We work with congregations with as few as, I don’t know, 10 or 15, and some as large as 5,000. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we find a way to fit the payment, so that it all kind of works.
Our mission is not to make money, because we’re a nonprofit. The mission is to help. I’m clear that we do need some new ways of thinking about it. One of the things that’s happened over the last couple years is the opportunity to work with our partners, and to get some money from foundations. In late 2018, we received a Lily grant from the Lily Endowment.
Viverette: Which is a really big deal.
Gambill: It’s a pretty big deal. They gave us a million dollars, in our partnership with the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, to create a program that we call Thriving in Ministry. It’s designed to help clergy at different stages of their career, and in different ministerial roles. Everything from church starters, to interim pastors, to senior pastors, to staff. Lots of different roles, different stages, and create learning communities and cohorts of learners that worked together for two years, to try to support and encourage them as they moved through the stages of life and ministry. We’re very excited about it. We’re accepting applications now for the first cohort that we’re forming. This is a five-year grant.
We also just applied, by invitation from Lily, for another that we’ll hopefully get later this year, called Thriving Congregations. Whereas Thriving In Ministry focused on supporting clergy, Thriving Congregations, if we get the grant, it’ll be helping us to design a program to specifically support congregations. This will be a great resource, that helps us meet the economic challenge that many congregations are facing, because it’ll help us be able to underwrite and provide services to congregations, to help them get clear about their mission, and their work, and reengage their communities, and kind of mine their own traditions and resources in new ways, so that they can become vital again in their own communities and lives. We’re very excited about that.
The Lily Grants alone are a huge new area of work for us. We’re excited because the Lily Endowment cares a lot about congregations, has invested millions, millions at least, in congregations and clergy. This is a good sign, and I think will help bridge the gap for a lot of congregations who need help and can’t afford it, and allow us to find some new ways to be helpful to them for the future challenges.
Gambill: Thank you.
Viverette: If folks are interested in this Thriving In Ministry, the first one you mentioned, where might they find more information?
Gambill: They can Google it. They can also go to healthychurch.org, and I think our links are up. If not, they’ll be soon. You can also go to Wake Forest School of Divinity, and look for links there for the application process, or you can just write email@example.com, and we’ll be able to help you get an application to participate.
Viverette: Great. Is there anything that you want an opportunity to share, that we haven’t had a chance to …
Gambill: I would like to say that we live in a kind of jaded age. There’s a lot of reasons to be jaded and cynical about everything, including church. One of the things that is absolutely true about all of us who work at the Center, is that we absolutely believe in the church. We believe that congregations aren’t accidents, that it’s part of God’s calling and design. The congregations are an essential way to change the world, and make the world more like the world that God intended for it.
We don’t just help congregations, we’re changing the world. We really believe that, and that’s why it’s very gratifying to see a church become stronger and healthier, and able to fulfill its mission, and to see clergy thrive, and overcome sometimes significant challenges to do the work that God has called them to do.
We don’t see it as simply working in churches, we realized that this is part of the web of health that affects everybody, even if you’re not in a church. As that church increases its capacity to make a difference in the community and touch people’s lives, often who’ve never been inside a church and may never, but can nevertheless benefit from that church’s mission and ministry.
We’re excited about that. We are in no ways pessimistic about the future of the church. It’ll be new forms and new ways, but we’re excited about what we thank God is doing in the local church, and glad to be a part of that mission.
Viverette: I did realize I didn’t ask you earlier, is there a real success story that stands out to you in your work over the past many years with the Center, that does speak to kind of the power of faith, and healing, and congregational life?
Gambill: There are lots of stories at different scales. I remember one particular church that was really in a downtown area, not a huge urban area, but was really struggling with identity and purpose, and was in a decline, and it asked for help.
I led them through the process, and there were two key moments that were really striking to me. At one point, they had decided that they wanted to review their own history, at my encouragement, which I thought was a great idea. In reviewing their own history as a congregation, they had started, I don’t know, let’s say 1925. I don’t remember the exact year. They discovered, in reviewing their own history, that up until 1980, they had started either a new church or some sort of a new significant ministry every five years.
Gambill: Every five years. But something had happened along the late 70s or 80s, and they just stopped. This was in the mid-90s, probably when I was helping them with this conversation. I remember one of the people saying, when this presentation was made about this, they looked at that history and they said, “Oh, that’s what kind of church we are.” I thought, “I think you’re right.”
Well, that same congregation over the years had somehow inherited a piece of property adjacent to the church. It was kind of a strip mall kind of a thing, kind of rundown. I don’t think there was anything in it. It looked fairly abandoned. They’d always kind of had some arguments over the years about what to do with it, and so forth, and so on.
Out of this conversation, after this presentation about, “That’s the kind of church,” the idea was suddenly birthed, we could be the provider of ministries for other nonprofits in the city to make a difference. They created what they called a ministry mall. It was transformative both for the church and all the organizations that they allowed to use their space. It was a great and unexpected story about a use of resources in a way that no one had never thought about. Another one that was strikingly different was a rural church that a lot of people had written off as not being very important. So we did an exercise with them, helping them to identify their assets.
One of great surprises that emerged in the conversation was that the church owned a barn. Apparently, only one older man remembered that they even owned a barn. No one could quite remember farmer Brown who left it to them 50 years ago. It was like a surprise. The guy says, “Yea, what church owns a barn?” Well, that’s great, okay, what do we do with a barn? So later on in the conversation, one of the other assets that people had identified was a lot of people who really loved caring for and tending to animals. Okay, that’s nice. I’m thinking what does this have to do with church? So we get to the part of the exercise where I allow them to map the assets into new actions. And one of the teams comes back and said, “We figured out what to do with the barn. And I said, “Well, by all means share it with us.” This was a church that was not too far out of the path of one of the recent hurricanes at the time. And they had read about how all the animal shelters were overrun, and all these stray animals that no one cared for, and they said we’ve got people who love animals and we’ve got a barn. So they created a temporary animal shelter.
Now, if you’d have asked me what would this search come up with as a new way to focus I would not have come up with that idea. But it touched people’s lives. I didn’t track it, so I don’t know how many pets they found and returned, but just the idea that they would do that and that kind of creative imagination about what to do with the resources that God had given them was just inspiring to me. I’ve never forgotten that. I like to tell that story because it’s so different from what you expect to hear from a church.
Viverette: And in so many ways it’s like my experience at FaithHealth is finding resources and sharing them in ways we’d never imagine, couldn’t even dream up working by ourselves, which is why it’s such a gift to be a part of this work. I love working with hopeful people who see the capacity for the world to change when people come together and their faith communities to make a difference.
Well, Chris, thanks so much for joining me today.
Gambill: It’s been my pleasure.
Viverette: For those of you who want to find more information about the work we’re talking about, please visit our website at FaithHealthNC.org. Or you can also find more information about the Center for Congregational Health as Chris just said at HealthyChurch.org. Thanks so much.
Gambill: Thank you.