Ministry Corner: Tim Keel
Stimulus: So Tim, can you tell us a bit about who you are and how you began in ministry?
Tim: I’m 51 years old this year. I’ve been married 29 years and I’ve been in ministry full-time professionally since 1991. I got my start doing youth ministry. I was working with students at a local high school and with church-kids in the youth group. But my actual first experience was at university with a campus ministry. When I was at Uni, I was ministering to peers. It was after I graduated that I went on staff at this church where I ran the youth program. I became a ministry “professional.” It was a great church but it was disorientating. A lot of the things that had been so natural in college shifted. It sent me on a quest to go to seminary to see if I could figure out why things felt so different. At seminary, the theological education was amazing but the crisis of church intensified for me. That prompted me on a journey which ended up with me planting a church. We came back to our home in Kansas City and started a church community.
Part of my call to ministry was that when I became a Christian, the church became part of the family I had lost when my parents got divorced. It was my own journey of healing and who I was as a Christian to be connected to the Body of Christ. It was where I felt most alive; where my gifts were most recognised and used. And where I could see the greatest impact. I’d been an art major in college and I loved creativity. I had people speak into my life as a senior in high school. They affirmed the call. I kept taking step after little step. Then I ended up in full time ministry.
Stimulus: So you felt like church was a coming home, and feeling a call and a place where your gifts could be used as well?
Tim: It was a family that wasn’t my family. There were different kinds of people I had access to. The church I went to was a really creative and vibrant community. The environment I was in was incredibly rich and vibrant.People gave me a great deal of freedom. I don’t like to be micro-managed so being in an environment where I was given a long leash to create and be was really important. Trust and freedom was given to me and that made a big difference. There was a constellation of relationships that influenced me during that time. I wasn’t too dependent on one person.
Stimulus: So what else helped shape your ministry journey?
Tim: I had a really positive ministry experience and was able to try things out before I went and did theological education. I had a context to reflect in. I had real questions I wanted answered. I had a lot of different jobs in the marketplace. I went into ministry young, but I’d worked all the way through high school and college. I’d had lots of different experiences and loved being out with people, not just being in the church. I had a pretty good idea of what was happening in people’s lives outside the church. I think that really matters.
Stimulus: Can you say more about how you approach ministry in your church community?
Tim: There are some things that when you’re a minister of the gospel you do because of your theology that are the same across contexts – for example, we celebrate the sacraments, we preach the word, we baptise people, we practice the eucharist, we try to serve the poor, and then there are unique expressions of calling. In the New Testament they’ll talk about charisms or gifts of grace that come that are different – not only for individual believers but individual communities of believers. In our community we have a creative charism. We also love to mix that with academics and thinking so that the head and the heart are engaged. That combination of heart and heart, arts and academics, and how those things are getting embodied is our focus. It’s about who we are and how we enact the gospel in our community.
Stimulus: I’ve heard you talk about the material mattering, and how you want to live your faith in ways that are not only spiritual. Can you say more about that?
Tim: One of the texts I use with my students is called “The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology and the Church.” They’re basically saying that Christianity in the West has become disembodied and dis-embedded. We’re meant to be in our bodies and we’re meant to be in bodies of believers. I think for me I’ve always felt the importance of being embedded. The newer journey for me is how that gets played out in my physical journey. For the last year I’ve been a CrossFit coach as a hobby outside the church. I’ve found that you can get so far with people, but until you’re dealing with bodies, you can only do so much formation.
I’ve found the same thing with money. As a pastor when I talk to people about their lives, I get so far. When I talk about money, everything in their life opens up. Money represents so many things in our lives which we cling for security that affects our body. When you get to those lynch pin things it’s really significant.
I don’t think the church has always done a good job of thinking about embodiment. One of the big moves of our church is towards embodiment; how we talk about faith in our community and physically in our bodies, and how we continue to incarnate the gospel in our local area.
Stimulus: Is this a new flavour of your own ministry?
Tim: For me, I’m a physical person. I’ve always felt the need to be in my body for my own health. I’ve always joked about my running shoes being the cheapest form of therapy I have. If I’m not physically active, my emotional health suffers. When you’re coaching someone in CrossFit, you see them coming up against physical limitations - whether because of a physical limitation or athletic ability or because of an injury. You have the ability to work someone through something, and you realise this boundary is not just a physical boundary but a mental/emotional boundary. When they break through, you see that cascade into their lives in other ways, it’s really stunning. Because we all live in narratives of who we are and what we can and can’t do.
Stimulus: So how is this also shaping your theology?
Tim: We bought a worn down church across the street from our church. The name of our church is Jacob’s Well. We have a counselling centre there called Good Matter (because all of this matter is good). We have a Narcotics Anonymous group that meets in that space. Part of the vision is to make it a place people in the community can go for Zumba, CrossFit, and general wellness.
The way I think about this theologically is, does the incarnation matter or not? I think it does. We often forget (or ignore) the fact that Jesus took on a body, he lived and died in a body, and was resurrected into a glorified body. Platonic thought would break the body and mind into a dualism that’s primarily about an immaterial soul. We don’t have a body; we are a body. I think that’s a profound shift. I think often the mind-body dualism is a misreading of the poetic way the scripture talks about body, soul and mind. I think they’re all different ways of saying we’re one thing.
Stimulus: So what do you think the challenges are for the church in what you’re talking about?
Tim: One way to talk about embodiment theologically would be to talk about justice. Often wealthy societies have their cheap labour have their expense of poor people’s bodies. Any time you see massive concentrations of wealth, there is usually a hidden labour force that is being exploited to make this happen through the bodies of the poor.
All we have to do to supply the narrative for this is to read the Exodus story. You have the Egyptians exploiting the Jewish people. When God says let them observe the Sabbath, Pharaoh says, no you can’t break the economic machine; they can’t have rest. The system is all about production and consumption so when they try to break the economic cycle, they make them work even harder. So when God says, let my people go, it’s that cycle we’re talking about.
Another way to understand embodiment theologically is to think about creation. We’ve tended to view the theological arc as being reductively soteriological (meaning salvation). We say that the scope of salvation is the individual soul that’s liberated from the body and sent heaven. What we don’t have is any robust understanding of creation. What’s fascinating is that most of the problems and questions in the world that are being asked are creation questions. So these questions are, what does it mean to be sexual? What does it mean to be gendered? What does it mean to be human, especially with technology taking on more and more of a life including the virtual? What does it mean to relate to animals? What does it look like to be in relation to a creation that’s being exploited? What does it look like to live in relation to a neighbour who is other?
What the church has said is, “don’t worry about all those things, because it’s all going to burn. You need to worry more about going to heaven after you die.” I love looking to Paul in Colossians 1, where he breaks into a Christological hymn: “He is the image of the invisible God” (v. 15). Then he says two things. He says Christ is firstborn over all creation, firstborn from the dead (vv. 15, 18). We are comfortable with Jesus being firstborn from the dead and the redemption narrative. We are very unaware of Jesus being firstborn over creation and the importance of having a creation theology. We’ve gotten used to thinking of sin as primarily a personal issue, on a vertical horizon, and no theology of sin on a horizontal, systemic level.
Stimulus: So it’s sounding like there’s been a turn in your theology towards focusing on matter, and how we live in our bodies and with each other?
Tim: Yes. I think the scope of salvation is first in the church and then in the individual lives of the community of salvation. We’ve said it’s the individual who’s saved and the church who is ancillary to the individual. All through scripture, God provides a people to bear his salvation, and then individuals find their stories within the narrative. That’s one thing I think that’s really critical – to relocate ourselves out of the individualism of our culture.
Stimulus: What would be your hope for the church in the next few years?
Tim: For me, in America, given the political nature of what is going on, the hope for the church in my context is that there would be a chastening of the body of Christ that has gotten so complicit with nationalism, and a particular brand of that. That’s a very time-specific and culture-specific thing because of how devastating the last three years have been. It’s been so revelatory about the nature of faith that people have. My hope would be that there would be a renewed understanding of the importance of theology in really practical ways. That the lived theology of a church would cause people to ask what they believe.
Stimulus: In this work you’re doing and with these things that really matter, how do you sustain yourself in ministry?
Tim: I have a lot of fun and I laugh a lot. My marriage is a big part of it. The security, love, and connection I have with my wife is the foundation of everything. And my family as well. I have really deep friendships with people I share life with pretty regularly. It’s also vital having a church community that’s really supportive and wants me to be creative and pushes me to do that. Also, they give me the freedom to be a CrossFit coach; to have a community where I’m around people who may or may not be Christian and who don’t relate to me primarily as “pastor.” That actually fuels me.
Stimulus: Tim, is there anything else you’d like to say to others in ministry?
Tim: I’m aware I have a unique environment, and that a lot of people have very discouraging environments, and find themselves at odds with their congregation or their elder board. That can get really dispiriting. There’s no quick answers for those things. I’m aware there’s a lot of pain connected with the local church; both for leaders and people that are in churches. I think vulnerability is really important. I think people don’t understand the power of it. Too often the church opts for the false promise of power.
I think there can be a lot of healing and work done if people can be vulnerable with each other and share their hurts and be honest about them, but not in order to blame. I think about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that happened in South Africa after apartheid. People just came and told their truth. You listened; you didn’t judge; you didn’t indict. You then said, how do we find a way forward from this? That becomes very important if the church is going to heal.
Stimulus: Thanks very much, Tim, for your thoughts and your heart for others in your ministry. We wish you well.
 Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn, The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology and the Church. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).