By: Eileen Drennen
It was billed as a Meet-and-Greet weekend.
But for the members of tiny Virginia-Highland Church, it was much more.
The Rev. Michael Piazza, who was senior pastor of the largest liberal/inclusive church in the South for 22 years, came to town to meet the members of the feisty congregation at the corner of Virginia Avenue and Ponce de Leon Place.
Having spent two years without a senior pastor and months of winnowing through applicants to find their ideal leader, they were eager to make the acquaintance of the man who’d transformed a small congregation in Dallas, Texas into a mega-church called the Cathedral of Hope.
But it wasn’t enough that a search committee had settled on the Rev. Piazza, a native Georgian, well-respected author and social-justice advocate with an international following.
The congregation, which numbers 100+ on paper but has about half as many active members, was invited to pepper him with questions on Saturday over lunch at the church hall, then hear him preach on Sunday morning.
And only then would they put the candidate’s hiring to a vote.Unless a majority agreed, the high-profile minister would drive back to Texas with his team – life partner Bill Eure and work partner David Plunkett – and Virginia-Highland Church would start its search all over again.
Fortunately, the church – which includes lifelong members and younger families but mostly ranges in age from 30 to 60 – was unanimous in its approval, and the Rev. Piazza was quick to accept the offer to lead them into an even more active future. He and his assistant – Plunkett will back him up as the church’s new director of community life – start on March 1.
This wasn’t the first time the small but powerful community has been at a crossroads.
Having begun life in a Monroe Street storefront in the 1920s, grown to 1,000 members strong in the 1950s, lost hundreds of members in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the great suburban exodus and struggled to find its way in the 1980s, the church has learned well that it must adapt to endure.
In 1990, under the leadership of former pastor the Rev. Tim Shirley, Virginia-Highland Church began its move away from its Southern Baptist roots, says Anna Hall – who is current Director of Church Life but will transition into the role of director of community outreach. She's also a licensed minister on her own path to ordination.
That was when the church ordained women as deacons for the first time, reached out to the gay and lesbian residents who’d moved into the neighborhood and made its ministry one of radical inclusion, where “everyone was welcome.”
After leaving the Southern Baptist Convention, the church is now affiliated with the progressive Alliance of Baptists and the United Church of Christ.
“The church was dying,” says Hall of the time when membership had shrunk to a low of 20. “ It wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t changed.”
Now, she says, the purposely collaborative and welcoming Virginia-Highland Church wants to “help people know that the dominant voice you hear of Christianity – i.e. evangelical and conservative – isn’t the only voice of Christianity.”
Its gospel, she says, is rooted in the “the teachings of Jesus,” especially his call to unconditional love and service. Becoming a more active participant in the network of progressive Christian churches will be easier with the Rev. Piazza in place
Keeping up with the times is just part of what it does.
When the Rev. Shirley retired, lay members took on leadership roles and continued to reach out to the community. Even during the transition, the church – which owns its building outright and rents space to a daycare program and yoga studio – has continued to grow. Folks who drive by may notice its web address posted out front, and members keep up with the latest news on its active Facebook page.
On Sunday morning, the Rev. Piazza told the congretation how thrilled he was to be addressing them in person, and how delighted he was at even the possibility of joining their church.
“I understand fully what an incredible honor it is,” he said, “and a privilege, to help this church be all it can be.”
He spoke about growing up in South Georgia, where all he’d ever wanted to be was a Methodist minister, and how he thought that dream was lost when he realized he was gay. But finding a new home in the Metropolitan Community Church, and meeting and marrying his life partner 30 years ago in Atlanta, where they made their first home, showed him his dream was still very much alive.
Coming home to Georgia to pastor here, the Rev. Piazza said, would be like the closing of an epic life circle.
After the service, he bid churchgoers farewell and drove away, without knowing how they’d vote.
After a quick covered-dish luncheon and discussion in the church hall, members decided unanimously that he was the man to lead them into their next chapter, one they hope includes steadier growth, more ambitious outreach and a higher profile in the city’s progressive church community.
Gladys Crawford, 86, has been worshipping here since she was a child.
“I guess I will be forever,” she said before casting her vote. “It’s gone through a lot of changes – but it’s my church. This building used to be running over with people. I’d feel like it was most successful if we filled up every bench.”
By dinnertime Sunday, the Rev. Piazza had already posted on the church’s Facebook page.
“Thank you all for a great Weekend,” he wrote. “Now we begin a great new adventure together. I can’t wait for the first Sunday in March. Too bad we start during Lent ‘cause I think this is gonna feel like a time of resurrection!”
Virginia-Highland Church, 743 Virginia Ave. 404-348-4830. www.vhchurch.org.