Tiffany Chaney: A Mission developer getting to know the ‘Nones’ on the streets of Dorchester, MA

A condensed version of this article was published in the Spring 2013 edition of
PS, The Philadelphia Seminary magazine 

LTSP Graduate Tiffany Chaney, MDiv ’12, who served her fourth-year internship in lively and diverse Dorchester, Massachusetts, is a mission developer initiating a new ministry focus in the neighborhood of some 120,000 residents, Boston’s largest. She was ordained June 9, 2013 at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) New England Synod Assembly and is now pastor at a mission “church” simply called “The Intersection” — a place where she hopes Dorchester’s African American, White, Hispanic, and Asian neighbors may come to feel comfortable, to connect, to talk about the lives they lead, and to exchange stories of faith.

The Rev. Tiffany Chaney“The neighborhood is my parish,” Chaney says. “I spend a lot of time out in the community talking to people, hearing their stories.” The context of Dorchester reminds her of the seminary’s “richly diverse community,” as she describes it, of students, staff and faculty, and of the seminary’s Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, community. Chaney notes that chief economist and researcher Jed Kolko of the online real estate firm Trulia wrote in the Atlantic Cities blog in November that Dorchester, using census data, is the eighth most diverse neighborhood in the US.

Chaney, originally from Mobile, AL, visits coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, where she meets people “with a variety of faith stories, or those who say they have no faith at all. I’ve found the best way to understand the perspective of the ‘nones’ is to talk to the nones.” “Nones” are the rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population who have identified themselves as having no connection to any religious faith. A Pew Research survey recently focused on characteristics of the “Nones.”

“I’ve found so far that people who say they do not have a faith fall into one of several categories,” Chaney says. “They used to go to church years ago but became disenchanted by what happened there. Or, they do not see the church having an impact on their ‘real’ lives once Sunday worship is over, or they have nothing against the church really, but they are busy with other activities with their children, their other interests and work.

“I have found in the context where I serve pastoral skills are regularly used when engaging unchurched people,” Chaney says. “I’ve found that even when people do not have a faith connection there is still a deep desire to have someone to talk to about what they are experiencing in life. Communication skills are important as well as problem-solving skills. My training in Family Systems Theory also helps. I’ve had conversations on park benches, done relationship counseling on the front steps of the church, and prayed with people on street corners.” 

Before attending seminary, Chaney honed a broad base of educational and practical experience that helps her these days. She graduated from John L. LeFlore High School of Communications and Arts in Mobile, then earned three degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham -- a BS in Finance, a Master of Business Administration, and an MS in Health Administration. She also worked as System Director of Business Development at Baptist Health in Montgomery, AL. Birmingham and Montgomery were significant locales in the civil rights journey of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he also lived in Dorchester during his years of study at Boston University.

Chaney, 33, has done a lot as a young adult. She’s been a strategic planner since 2002, working in the health care field either for hospitals or as a consultant. She moved from Birmingham to Atlanta after completing her graduate studies in 2004, and joined Lutheran Church of the Atonement (ELCA) there. She had always been a lay leader from the time she was raised in a Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod congregation. In Atlanta, her interests were piqued by learning about “natural church development” at a Southeastern Synod Assembly. “I was fascinated by how a director of evangelical mission from the denomination helped us to understand the strengths and opportunities for growth churches,” she recalls. Becoming more involved in the synod, Chaney was appointed to its Commission for Planting Congregations, and met others involved as mission congregation developers or redevelopers in the wider church. (Mission developers work at planting a congregation from scratch while redevelopers work at re-energizing an existing congregation.) “The work spoke to my background as a strategic planner,” Chaney says. She eventually felt called to study at LTSP, where she says she gleaned considerable additional background to support her current work. 

A seminary class she found especially helpful in engaging the unchurched was a summer intensive session with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Directors of Evangelical Mission from the denomination’s Region 7. 

“A particular concept I use from the class is called ‘In/Out Analysis.’ Is the ministry of the church more inwardly or outwardly focused. Is it disproportionately focused one way or the other?” She credits a chapter entitled “Rebalance the Mission” in the book Church-Going Insider or Gospel-Carrying Outsider by Judith McWilliams Dickhart for further developing her perspective.

“We’ve just begun worship at The Intersection,” Chaney says. “And so there are a whole host of new things to do each week to prepare for Sunday worship and mid-week Bible study. And we have to take care of an aging building that needs a lot of love. When I started my development work in June I was almost always on the outside. Now, while it is important to give attention to ‘inside’ ministry needs, I cannot forsake the ‘outside’ -- the community -- because outside is where the people are to whom we are commissioned to carry the Gospel.

“Odds are the ‘Nones’ in the community we serve aren’t going to walk into the church building while I am writing a sermon, working on the Sunday bulletin, setting up for Bible study or cleaning,” Chaney says. “If I am going to engage them, I have to be where they are in the community -- talking and laughing, hanging out in the coffee shop, serving in the community, and caring about the things that matter to them.

“I, along with the increasingly diverse faith community that is starting to form at The Intersection, have to first live the love of Christ ‘out’ in the community,” Chaney explains, “if we are ever going to expect those who have stayed away from the Church for one reason or another to come into the building to worship, learn, and grow in faith in Jesus Christ with us.”

Chaney says The Intersection is birthed from a long, rich history of Lutheran ministry in the Dorchester community, with Our Savior Lutheran Church sited at the new mission’s location, 500 Talbot Avenue, for 93 years. In addition to the work in the community, by Chaney and others, the mission’s outreach includes Saturday morning community prayer experiences at which “we pray for people, homes and businesses in the community,” Chaney says. A Faith Stories Bible Studies series is held Tuesday evenings.

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