What started as a joke—what happens when a pastor grabs a beer with a herpetologist?—ended with what could be a Science for the Church newsletter clickbait lede—“Church’s faith and science program inspires former president of student secular society to become a pastor.”
The pastor, Steve Miller, and the herpetologist (a biologist who studies amphibians), Jake Kerby, teamed up (not always with beer) about 10 years ago and applied for a Scientists in Congregations (SinC) grant. Their church, UCC Vermillion, became one of 37 awarded congregations. The grant supported a strategy designed by this 600-member congregation to more effectively engage with the adjacent University of South Dakota (USD).
With this installment, we are introducing a collection of profiles of Christian ministries that have benefited from pastor-scientist relationships and an intentional engagement with science. We’ll roll them out over time as we are able to share ingredients, lessons learned, and best practices that your ministry might take away from the experience of UCC Vermillion and others.
So, we begin with this mainline church in middle America whose effort was led by an inquisitive pastor and a devoted Christian who studies salamanders and other critters in South Dakota’s wetlands.
External AND Internal Conversations
The goal of UCC Vermillion’s faith and science project was not conversions but instead conversations and connections. It centered around curiosity and the asking of really big questions as a way to leverage access to faculty like Dr. Kerby, who were already part of the congregation.
When the church applied for a SinC grant in 2011, it was mostly known for arts and music. Along with interfaith programs, this is how the congregation connected to the life of the university. By the end of the grant term, UCC Vermillion was known as a church that engages science. Why? In part, because leaders had hosted multiple events outside the church with scientists who ranged from evangelical to atheist. Several of these events attracted more community members than church regulars. For curious locals with questions about faith and the origins of life or the nature of the soul, UCC Vermillion was the place to gather and inquire together.
Moreover, it prepped for each event with book groups, themed Bible studies, and through pastor Steve’s sermons. Engagement with science and scientists occurred inside the church both to lay the groundwork for public events but also to follow-up on them. As a result, the program benefited those within the church as well as those outside of it.
This is an approach we have found to be a best practice for engaging science: design a project that includes elements focused internally on the congregation that complement events and activities intended to include the wider community. In fact, most of the best SinC projects had this dual internal and external focus.
- Learn more about Scientists in Congregations (SinC) and some model churches here.
- Robin Lovin, pastor of an Iowa UCC church that received a SinC grant, reflects on his engagement with scientists.
- Marilyn Robinson was involved in the SinC program at Lovin’s Iowa City church while working on faith and science projects such as her book, Absence of Mind, and this On Being podcast with Templeton Prize winner Marcelo Gleiser.
- Get a sense of Jake and Steve in action during this 6-part Facebook live series from a fall of 2020 program on Religion and Science: (1) Creation and the Big Bang; (2) Evolution and Original Sin; (3) Health: Medicine and Spirit; (4) Coronavirus and Miracles; (5) Genetics and Playing God; and (6) Death, Afterlife, and AI.
- UCC Vermillion started an intern program for USD students involved music and worship and expanded to include interns supporting youth, kids, and adult ministries. They even had science interns who led book groups and contributed to other science-inspired programs.
Contextual (and Curious) Relationships
The centerpiece of the SinC program and UCC Vermillion’s project was the pastor-scientist pair—Jake and Steve. We have come to call this “The Standard Model.” They modeled—and continued to model—the conversation for everyone else to follow.
As Steve told us a few years ago when we were evaluating SinC, he and Jake were going to have these conversations about faith and science one way or another. Without the grant, it might have been just the two of them over beers. The grant was the incentive they needed to invite others to join them and to intentionally pursue the congregation’s desire to better connect with USD. So they gathered as an expanding group, sometimes over beers in the back room of a local bar, but also in university lecture halls, the sanctuary, and UCC Vermillion’s classrooms.
At times, the scientist and pastor would switch roles. Jake started preaching occasionally, usually engaging science from the pulpit while Steve was out of town. Moreover, Steve claimed as pastor, he played the part of the skeptic always asking questions while Jake often took a more faithful and optimistic perspective.
In all, they maintained an integrity about who they were as individuals and as a congregation. Their project was organic, leveraging people and programs that were already in the DNA of UCC Vermillion. They started with their own questions and interests and followed a genuine curiosity that guided them throughout the whole process. Their openness paid off. In comparison to their dialogues with Christians in science, they actually found richer conversation when engaging atheist scientists. Like a guitar string, tension is what made the music.
Through their project and beyond, Jake says they sought something bigger than themselves—understanding and appreciating the triune God who creates, sustains, and redeems the material world that science describes. It was a transcendent pursuit done contextually in their UCC congregation in Vermillion, SD; one that ultimately made them stronger.
And then there is this remarkable conversion. The President of the Secular Alliance at USD attended one of their programs and was moved by the church’s honest curiosity around science. He began to attend the church and upon graduation a few years later, followed a call to seminary and recently became a UCC pastor.
Again, conversion was never the goal, but God has a way of doing the unexpected. Who could have predicted that outcome when the pastor and the herpetologist just wanted to grab a beer together?