Welcome to our summer series, “Interview with a Pastor.” This series will highlight some of the pastors and churches in Project Thrive as we journey together toward the final year of the Thriving Congregations Initiative. We are grateful for the pastors as they lead their churches toward a thriving, hopeful future!

The Rev. Dr. Paula Smith is the senior pastor at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church. Gordon Memorial stands proudly as one of Nashville’s flagship African-American churches in the Meharry-Fisk neighborhood northwest of downtown. Even as the neighborhood demographics change around them, Gordon continues to offer resources and outreach to the community, including hosting The Freedom School every summer and providing care to the impoverished and seniors. They are diligent in maintaining partnerships with churches in the wider Nashville community including Christ Cathedral downtown and West End United Methodist (a fellow PT church!).

The goal of Project Thrive is to help our churches thrive in their context. In your opinion, you believe your church is thriving and in what ways?

Yes, I believe the church is thriving. I celebrate that we are a part of Project Thrive in that it has brought us together to do those assessments of the past, present, and where God is moving us into the future. It was sort of like a laser for us gathering all of these ideas and moving them forward. We had some challenges that needed to be dealt with, and the work of Project Thrive undergirded that reality and laid the foundation so that we can deal with the challenges and be able to look forward to what God is doing. It also provided the steps to move in that direction. I can honestly say that being a part of PT during COVID has put the church ahead of many other churches. We were ahead because we met together as a group of pastors [in the cohort] and were able to bring our churches along.

Has your definition of thriving changed through this process? If so, how?

I would not say that it has changed. The process has been a catalyst to implement the things that I had learned [in my doctoral work on mission and evangelism] by putting them into practice. With the congregation coming out of the pandemic, and dealing with the losses we had, it was a fresh wind and fresh fire for the congregation to rally around. 

Do you think the nature of your church either has changed or will change in the future?

Absolutely. It is changing and will continue to change. PT has helped to implement the Great Commandment of loving God, and then also moving to loving neighbor, including the new neighbors around us [as the neighborhood demographics have changed]. Matt, our coach, taught us to “look out the window and look in the mirror.” The congregation recognizes three foci for us: 1) financial health, 2) discipleship path, 3) community inter-racial and inter-generational engagement. The community is changing, and now the congregation is more prepared to engage both the old and the new neighbors. 

What has been a valuable lesson you have learned as your church has participated in this process?

The lesson I think we have learned is reaffirmation that God is not through with us yet and the best is yet to come! We had the opportunity after one of the assessment to look at the normal life cycle of a church – to visually see where we were – past that “glory point” and on the other side of maintenance. PT gave us eyes to accept reality and then take concrete steps toward the right direction. 

What part of the process has been most helpful?

The most helpful part was being a part of the process during COVID, when the whole world was struggling with how to navigate this unknown. We had these weekly conversations. We had the strength of our coaches and our peer group to talk about where we were. We could talk not only about the practical matters, but our spiritual and emotional health as well. 

What do you want to celebrate? 

There are many things to be celebrated. In the beginning, when we formed the team, I celebrate the importance of collaboration. I celebrate that I knew I was not alone – that there was a team of people with me. Because of strong leadership, it was not just another task for me. I celebrate the team and the people. I celebrate the energy that has come from the process that has led us to where we are today.