The Rev. Dr. Gerald Liu is ready to plow new ground as the emerging faith communities cultivator for the Great Plains Conference.
“I feel like there’s a lot of promise because this is such a major pivot in the life of The United Methodist Church, so I’m glad to come and, at the annual conference level, be able to see how we can be faithful going forward,” said Liu, who began the new position Aug. 1.
Liu’s resumé includes more than two years of work with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, nearly a decade teaching worship and preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary and Drew University and many other institutions across the Association of Theological Schools and the greater ecology of higher education, and working two years on the connectional team for the British Methodist Church.
“This just seemed like a much more direct opportunity to have a hand in shaping new ministries for The United Methodist Church, and to be in an annual conference that was large in size and well-resourced and, from the people I’ve met, obviously very talented personnel,” he said.
A new position for the conference, Liu’s job will be two-pronged.
He will work with churches and individuals who have been facing obstacles after disaffiliation votes, and work in a variation of the New Church Development (NCD) capacity in helping form new hoping form new or expand current congregations. He also will work with new forms of Christian community. Current examples in the Great Plains Conference include Urban Abbey in Omaha and Café Quetzal in Topeka.
“We as a conference have a unique opportunity to rethink congregational development on this side of the pandemic and this side of disaffiliations,” said the Rev. Jeff Clinger, director of congregational excellence. “Both of those things likely sped up the realities of post-Christendom in ways that give us the opportunity to rethink this in a lot of ways.”
Although Liu’s new role does have parallels to that of being an NCD coordinator, Clinger said, “we didn’t want to use that same title, and we didn’t want to assume the same box that that has been historically.”
Being a church planter, Clinger said, has moved from a parachute drop into underserved suburbs to form new congregations — “It worked to some degree, even through the 1990s, but less and less the last couple of decades,” he said — and more about established churches investigating multi-site possibilities.
Liu said he was intrigued by the cultural diversity of the Great Plains Conference, including the fact that about one-fourth of its clergy were born in Africa or South Korea.
“It’s the extremes of rural and urban, but at the same time you’ve got tremendous diversity,” he said. “You’ve really got a microcosm of the country. I can see why the Midwest is a focal point for American politics in general. If we were able to somehow cultivate effective and faithful new ministries with this kind of diversity and these kind of polarities, you could come up with a model that could really inform the rest of the country.”
Liu, who toured campus ministries in the Great Plains last year in his role as director of college ministries, initiative and belonging for the GBHEM, was alerted to the position by the Rev. Chris Jorgensen, senior pastor of Omaha St. Andrew’s UMC and a former preaching student of Liu’s at Drew seminary.
“Anytime Chris makes a recommendation I want to give it attention,” Clinger said. “It’s not a traditional, expected hire. He hasn’t worked in an annual conference or done church development work specifically in this way, but we felt like it was a unique opportunity.”
Jorgensen served an internship at Church of the Village in New York City, and recalled that before one of her two sermons there, she saw Liu walk in the door and found out he worshipped at the church.
She later became Liu’s research assistant at Drew, and he mentored her in independent study of “different churches that were vibrant and growing in the area,” she recalled.
“Gerald had insight and interest in the corners of the church that are vibrant and growing and how The United Methodist Church can figure out what’s going on there that might be right for us,” Jorgensen said. “He and I care a lot about the future of the church, and he was really interested in what innovation looks like in terms of becoming the church in a new way.”
Liu said he had “a closer view” of the conference thanks to his friendship with Jorgensen, and “the Great Plains is very healthy.”
“This is the type of job I would have wanted even when I was teaching,” he added. “The idea of being able to help bring about new ministries for the Methodist church — even though I’ve spent most of my career as an academic (is exciting).”
Liu said he was looking forward to the upcoming chapter of The United Methodist Church and the Great Plains Conference, following expected votes at next year’s General Conference to ease human sexuality restrictions on LGBTQ clergy and performing same-sex marriages.
“We’re entering into a dynamic time,” Liu said.
Liu, 44, was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the youngest of three sons of a nurse (who was born in China and grew up in Taiwan) and a longtime professor of educational psychology (born and raised in Taiwan) at Jackson State University, a historically Black university. The population of Jackson was about 1% Asian when he grew up, Liu said, and remains about the same today.
Growing up “in the true buckle of the Bible Belt,” Liu said, he had two friends “who tried to proselytize me” by inviting him to a Christian music concert at their Southern Baptist church respectively. In the first instance, he followed a crowd stirred by an altar call. Everyone was led to the basement and shown brochures on heaven and hell. Liu went with his friend because he was his ride home. What he saw made an impression.
He was later invited to Sunday morning services at another Southern Baptist church by the late Iraqi Freedom veteran and father of three Aaron Holleyman, where the pastor posed the question “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?”
“I was in the balcony, and I didn’t want to go to hell,” Liu recalled with a laugh.
Another neighbor across the street was the youth director for the local United Methodist Church, Liu said, who convinced him to change denominations.
When Liu graduated high school and entered Washington University in St. Louis with the intent of earning a business degree, he instead graduated with a major in composition for classical guitar.
A college friend, Rev. Matt Miofsky — now a bestselling author and lead pastor of The Gathering in St. Louis — was restarting the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Washington, and asked Liu to provide guitar music for worship.
Liu said he was puzzled why Miofsky, a year ahead of him in school, would go from Washington University to the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Liu was making plans to graduate and move to Nashville to attempt a music career when he received a phone call from Candler asking him to apply for a fellowship.
He said nothing in his college academic record would suggest that he was seminary material.
“I had one class in the history of Judaism, otherwise it was all business and all music,” he said.
The fellowship turned out to be the highest one available at Candler, Liu said.
He became a teaching assistant at Emory, and later at Vanderbilt University. He spent 2½ years as assistant professor of preaching and worship arts at Drew, and five years as assistant professor of worship and preaching at Princeton. After earning his master’s of divinity from Emory, which included a fellowship year studying theology in Göttingen, Germany, he worked fulltime as a youth minister in Greater Atlanta and then served four congregations as a British Methodist minister in Nottingham, England. After working in the United Kingdom, Liu earned a doctorate in homiletics and liturgics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville with a minor in theological studies.
Ordained in the Mississippi Conference in 2010, Liu will be based at the conference office in Topeka.
He is moving to Kansas with his girlfriend, Sierra Ewert, who works for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, based in New York. She will work remotely, continuing her efforts in criminal justice and immigration reform.
They are moving with Lucifer, their Great Dane, who is already noticing the differences between living in New York and the Great Plains.
“I think he’s the most overjoyed about living in Kansas,” Liu said with a laugh
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