Interview with Kevin Kuehmichel, Pastor Committed to Community Service
Viewpoints Interview #19
Kevin Kuehmichel Interview by Jeff Boyd
Submitted March 25, 2015
Welcome to Viewpoints: Adventist Perspectives on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. Kevin Kuehmichel is the founding pastor of Walk of Faith Fellowship in Cleveland, OH. He is now pastoring the Palo Cedro Seventh-day Adventist Church in Palo Cedro, California. Kuehmichel is committed to helping congregations serve their local communities in practical ways.
AToday: How did Walk of Faith Fellowship begin?
Kuehmichel: We actually planted the church when I came out of seminary. I graduated in December 1996, and by February of 1997 I was sent to Cleveland to plant a church from scratch. There was no core group. It was my wife and me and our two children.
That was at the time when NADEI and Russell Burrill were pushing church planting. I had gone through that focus in NADEI and had been sent out to Oregon for church planting assessment. I know they’re still doing SEEDS, but Russell Burrill was the main proponent along with Don Schneider at the time.
Ohio had a church plant on the board with money, so they sent me there. That was my first assignment as an Adventist pastor. I ended up spending 17 years in the city. The stress level had gotten to the point where I needed to take a break, needed to move out of the city. I didn’t live in the suburbs. We lived in the very neighborhood where we were ministering. We bought a house within blocks of where we ended up with the church. This was kind of frontier missions in a North American large city.
We started the church primarily with young adults, many in their twenties or late teens. I was one of the oldest people in the church. We tried to start a cell church, and that worked for a little bit. We grew the church from 10 or 12 young adults to 100 within two years.
But it was very much a me-centered church. One of my struggles with the cell church concept is it became very inward focused. The young people liked the people in their cells, and there was no mission, no sense of serving their community.
We started off in a house and ended up renting a Presbyterian church. After about two years of that, I was frustrated that we weren’t doing what I consider real ministry. By that I mean serving others instead of just showing up at church, wanting to hang with your friends.
I was getting frustrated by 2001 or 2002. My wife suggested that I start doing my own community outreach irrespective of what the church was willing to do. So I did. I started to coach baseball and football. Inner city rec-league. We’re not talking about middle-class America; we’re talking about kids who primarily don’t have dads and who don’t know how to even hold a bat or a ball.
So I started doing that at the local community rec center. I did that for about a year. The other thing I did: There was city ice rink, so I would go skate with the kids and teach them how to skate. I’m a skater. I grew up in Wisconsin. I was trying to integrate myself into the lives of the children.
Out of that I proposed to the conference and the church that we start a teen drop-in center. We rented a store front, and we put games in there—a pool table, ping-pong table, Foosball, air hockey, board games. We eventually added a popcorn machine. We found out soon that a lot of these kids weren’t getting fed well, so we started feeding them.
I got some money from the conference and some money from the union, and got some church support. This became a real outreach center. We started to have 20 to 25 youth from the community—none of these were church kids. We did that for a couple of years.
AToday: Did church members get involved?
Kuehmichel: It took awhile, but I got a number of church members to engage the youth. I tried to convince some of the men to start getting involved in these young people’s lives. A lot of them struggled to see what it could become.
When we had a regular group of 12 or 14 kids coming every night, and I kept telling church members stories about these kids and encouraging people, I did get some people to start coming. They said, “Hey, this isn’t that hard. We just have to care about people.”
We were running it five nights a week. We were open four nights a week for games, but on Friday nights we shut the games down and we did what we called Teen Talk. We talked to the kids about their lives, about gangs, the streets, school, violence, sex. We’d feed them, and just talk. And occasionally we’d introduce Bible stories or talk to them about biblical concepts.
This went on for 3 or 4 years, and then the Presbyterian church that we were renting was closing down. We had to either buy it or leave. I didn’t want the church. It wasn’t conducive to ministry. We had hardly gotten anyone from the community to come to the church. We were getting all kinds of people to come to the store front, the drop-in center.
I encouraged the church to think about moving into the store front as a place of worship and ministry. It was at that point that I lost half my congregation. Many of them wanted to move to the suburbs. They were tired of doing city work. Basically, I said, “No, I was sent here to plant a church. This is the area we’ve been working. I’m not moving the church.”
We were in that store front for about a year or year and a half. Ultimately, we found another building, which is the building Walk of Faith is in now. This is another store front that’s 6,000 square feet. This gave us enough room to have a community center, service outreach and worship.
We took the teen center with us. And we started to do community services with clothing and food distribution. We had done a little bit of that before because of the networks and the families that we started to meet. We didn’t have a lot of space in the first building, so it was rather primitive.
So we moved into the new larger store front, which is the present location. What we found was that we lost all of our kids. We moved far enough that we moved across gang lines. We had only moved 12 blocks on the same street, but we moved into a territory that kids wouldn’t cross over, so now we’d lost all of our kids. We had all of our equipment and games set up, and no kids.
But we had a lot more space now. We had to do a lot of clean up and restoration of the building. It has a full basement that we cleaned and painted and made attractive. We put our community center clothing distribution there.
We engaged with the Northeast Ohio Food Bank. We became one of their partners, and we set up a food bank. Since we were new, we went to their training and set it up according to what they wanted. A lot of food banks give a bag of food, but we set up a “choice pantry” where people shop. Through research the food bank had determined that it is far less wasteful to let people take what they’re going to eat rather than just give them something that they’re going to throw half of away.
The food bank showed us what to do; we just did it. We became the poster child of northeast Ohio. In 2011 we won the Innovative Food Pantry of the Year award. We were the first to use a computer in-take system. When the FDA came to inspect the regional food bank, the food bank brought the FDA to our site because we were their showcase.
We started small and ended up serving over 1,000 families a month, either through our clothing or food distribution. Then we started a hot meal program. We affiliated with the food bank, and we started serving breakfast five days a week.
Monday through Friday we got a crew in there. I started doing it myself, slowly. As it built, I got more volunteers. Pretty soon we hired a cook. When I started we were serving about 20 to 25 people, many of whom were homeless or looking for work. When I left last year, they were serving around 75 people a day.
The breakfast worked out well because nobody else in the area served breakfast. Everyone else was doing evening meals. There were some churches that were doing sandwiches for lunch, but nobody was doing a hot breakfast. We were trying to have a varied menu every day. We would get pastries from Panera Bread. Then in the summer kids would come to us because when school was out they weren’t getting breakfast. Cleveland public schools feed the kids two meals a day, and for a lot of kids, that’s the only food they get.
When we moved into the first smaller storefront, the church had dropped down to about 40 members. It had gone from close to 120 down to 40 in attendance. When I left last year there were 80 in attendance. It was truly a community-based outreach ministry. Everybody knew we were Seventh-day Adventists. We had a literature rack with all kinds of Adventist materials that people took left and right. We never had an issue with anybody questioning our denomination or our theology.
One of the things that I was really pushing was trying to change the concept people have of Adventism. They see us for the things we don’t do rather than what we are—compassionate servers of our community. In 2013 we received a $25,000 grant from the city of Cleveland. They recognized us and our community impact. We received an award from the mayor for community involvement.
Here’s the sad thing. When I decided to leave, I selected and trained a person to take over for me, but the conference said they were going in a different direction. They did not put that person in there; in fact, they have not replaced me or put a pastor in there. Ohio got a new conference president and a new secretary, and they didn’t see what we were doing as real ministry. I do know there are four or five strong leaders still at the community center who are doing their best to keep it going at the level we had it before I left.
I wrestled with leaving. I knew there was potential that this could take a step backward. But I have to trust that God is in control. If this is from God, He’s going to have to sustain it. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some set-backs, but I have to trust He’s going to take care of His work.
This happened because of a vision and someone who was pushing it. Somebody who wasn’t going to accept anything less. The congregation wasn’t always in tune with what I was doing and why I was doing it. Eventually, I built enough trust that they let me do things, but I didn’t have a congregation that was out pushing in the front to get this done.
I pushed because I saw this as necessary. I’m a little discouraged with my denomination and it’s attitude toward compassion ministries. Too often we think that if we just give people a good Bible study they should get it. If not, oh well. There are so many people out there who are so broken and hurting that they can’t hear our message. They don’t trust us, and they don’t know who we are. We’re not doing a very good job of introducing ourselves to them.
I have to give credit to Raj Attiken who supported me for the whole time. In fact, Raj was elected conference president the year I was sent to Cleveland. And Raj retired a couple of months before I left. He supported that ministry, did everything possible to help keep it running.
In some ways I’m an outlier as far as Adventist pastors are concerned. I’m an adult convert. I wasn’t raised in the Adventist bubble with Adventist cultural expectations, so I have always been free to try different things, not feeling constrained by the cultural context of Adventism. Raj Attiken saw that and was willing to give me freedom to try some things.
I gave you the high points. We made mistakes along the way. There were times I screwed up, where there were failures. But I was encouraged to keep going, to keep trying until we found a recipe that worked. I was really discouraged when we lost all the kids, and I thought we’d failed. But we segued into a different ministry based on what we had learned with the kids and moved forward to a greater impact.
There were times I was wondering if we were doing the right thing, but it seemed that constantly we saw growth and improvement. We got baptisms. They were not quick baptisms. They usually took a long time. But those people didn’t leave out the back door because they felt connected to the church and they had a purpose. They weren’t just baptized; they were given jobs to do. They understood the ministry and why we were there.
Much of what I’ve learned about community ministry and activism came through participating in the lives of the people who I was sent to serve. I realized that I can’t teach them about the “2,300 days” if they don’t trust me and don’t know we do this because we love Jesus and we love them.
AToday: To clarify, in the second storefront, the larger one, you met there for church and did community ministry in the same space?
Kuehmichel: Yes, there were 3,000 square feet on the main floor in which we had our eating area, which eventually became where we served our hot meals, and we had our worship area. There were 3,000 square feet in the basement that people originally thought was unusable. But after we cleaned it, painted it, put lighting in, fixed some water leaks—half of that is the food pantry and half is for clothing, kind of a traditional Dorcas clothing distribution.
The other thing we did was change the schedule. People in the city weren’t coming to church, so I started asking questions why, and a lot of them don’t get up until noon. So I said, we’re going to start church later. We’re going to have a meal every Sabbath, and we’re going to feed the community, and we’re going to have Sabbath School after the meal. We had a Sabbath potluck every week, and we invited the community. After the potluck we invited them to stay for Bible study. So we flipped some things around. It seems so simple, but eyebrows were raised.
I wanted to make it meaningful for the people we were trying to reach. In effect, we were feeding the community six days a week if you count Sabbath potluck. We routinely had between 25 and 40 people show up for Sabbath potluck. Invariably, people would sit around and talk, and we’d start the Bible study in the adjacent area. They could hear everything, and they’d come over and sit in and listen. We’d give a Bible to them.
Now when you do this kind of ministry, you can’t use the Quarterly. The people who visit are not going to read ahead, are not going to study their Quarterly. So we would just open a passage of the Bible and talk about it. Anybody could come in anytime and still get something out of the lesson. We changed everything, including how we do Sabbath School so it would be relevant to the people who were coming in.
AToday: So was the main church service before the potluck?
Kuehmichel: The worship service would start about 11:30 or 11:45, and potluck started at 1:30pm. People would start coming in at noon or 12:30, and they’d sit in the eating area, listening to the sermon. We still had worship before the meal, but we moved it closer to their schedule than or own.
AToday: Even small changes like that can be very difficult in some congregations.
Kuehmichel: That is because church is for them; it’s not for others. Until we understand that what we do is for the lost and not for our own personal needs, you won’t see any changes.
My son’s generation is ripe for this kind of ministry. They want social interaction. They don’t want cookie-cutter approaches. But it’s the very thing that’s the most difficult to do in our church right now. I really believe if we would allow people to do this, I think we’d see more young people getting engaged in church and feeling a part of it.
AToday: What would you like to say to pastors or laypeople who are interested in pursuing community service ministry like this?
Kuehmichel: I’m learning right now with this change of venue how difficult it is to do this kind of work in traditional churches. I have already tried to move them to this and have received a lot of push-back because of the comfort issue. I’m moving them out of their comfort zone. When they interviewed me, I told them I was going to be out of the box. They were excited, but I don’t think they really understood what this meant. I have made a number of people very uncomfortable.
The opposite side is we’re seeing people coming out of the woodwork who are starting to come back to church. They’re being drawn to these very real ministry concepts about how we serve people. I did get the church to start a Celebrate Recovery outreach.
So this is not an easy thing to do, especially in an established, more traditional Adventist context. I think that this kind of thing really works well with church planting—we need to start planting some unique congregations.
I would suggest that nobody should have to go into a city alone like I did in Cleveland. I think that’s too stressful. There should be at least two ministers sent to start a church. I know that raises the dollar level, but it definitely will help with the stress level of the people building it.
I don’t want anyone to think that this kind of ministry is easy. It’s not easy from the context of the people you serve, nor is it easy trying to change attitudes of people who are already in the church. You’re going to get pushed from both sides. But I think it’s necessary.
And what I did in Cleveland with Walk of Faith is not totally reproducible in other areas. You have to find your niche in your context. We found a need, and we tried to figure out the best way to meet that need. Some of the things I did in Cleveland are not going to relate to the people in the community where I am now. The basic concepts will—caring about people, finding a place to serve them—but you have to find out what the needs are.
The other thing I learned in the city was collaborative ministry—working with other agencies. One of the reasons that we became so successful is that we partnered with other people. We partnered with the food bank, the city of Cleveland, the Salvation Army. We didn’t see them as adversaries or competitors; we tried to find a way to fill in the gaps that the other agencies weren’t doing. In order to do that, you have to network with them. In doing that, we gained a lot of respect because they didn’t see us as competitors trying to take away their clients or their ministry context.
For instance, my church here in California wants to start a Vacation Bible School. We haven’t had one in quite a while. The first thing I said was to go around and check the other churches and make sure we’re not doing it when they are. We are not going to compete with them. So the VBS leaders called all the churches, and we found a time for ours. Now those churches can support us instead of thinking we’re trying to take their kids away. This isn’t something we’ve traditionally done because we tend to operate in isolation. That was a valuable lesson I learned in the city—you’re not alone. If you’re doing ministry and someone else is doing ministry, they’re not your enemy. Figure out how to work with them.
I know there are a lot of pastor who feel frustrated. Some of it is frustration because they don’t know what to do or how to do it. And some feel frustrated because of the push-back from some of the stronger personalities who refuse to give permission.
I’ve had pastors ask me how I did it. I just did it. I didn’t ask permission. I don’t need the congregation’s permission to do ministry. Sometimes you need permission to get the money, but I don’t need the congregation’s permission to go and do coaching. It didn’t cost the congregation anything. It took my time. They’ll get over it.
A pastor recently asked me how I get away with doing creative ministry. He said his church board won’t approve of anything. I said, I don’t let my board hold me back. With money I have no choice; I ask them for the money. But you have to stop the board from controlling what the church does.
Again, that’s an issue with young people. The control lies with the oldest generation. And the oldest generation is comfortable. They want their kids to come to church, but they don’t want to give them any freedom, and they don’t want to give them any money or responsibility—just come to church. Young people want to be actively engaged, and if the church leadership keeps saying no, it’s no wonder why our kids are walking out the back door.