The Companion sat down with Bryan Murphy over Zoom to ask about his call to ministry and what he has learned about the church. He was elected superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference at their annual meeting last month.
Can you tell us about your call to ministry and what that process has been like?
It was not a direct route. I was one of those second vocation pastors, where I started by coming out to California and having a corporate career in Silicon Valley. Ten or 15 years into that career, I started getting this sense that God was doing something different and calling me to live into a part of my life that I had not fully invested in. So in my late 20s, I went to the pastor at my church, South Bay Community Church, a Covenant congregation in Fremont, California, and told him I had a sense from God that I was supposed to go to seminary. I didn’t really even know what seminary was.
He directed me to Fuller. I started out down this road thinking, Let me take a few classes and get God off my back, then I can go back out there and make some money. As I began to dive into it, though, I quickly got passionate about the languages.
The biblical languages.
Yeah, Greek and Hebrew. I got excited about learning the Bible, the original languages, theology, and Christian formation. I enrolled, planning to take a few classes for a certificate, and I ended up signing up for an MDiv! So there I was, starting this process, still not really thinking I was going into full-time ministry. I was working with youth at the time, and thinking about being a youth pastor. And then eventually Dr. Stanley Long invited me to come on staff as associate pastor at South Bay. That was too great an opportunity not to learn from him.
So South Bay was my church home. I started there as a member and was there for 22 years overall. I served first under Dr. Long as a youth pastor and associate pastor, and then eventually as the lead pastor, with two years of co-pastoring at the end. God really brought me along in that church family and showed me what it meant to care for, serve, and lead people.
In those years of serving South Bay, what did you learn about ministry and about the church in general?
Coming from a corporate career, I’ve learned that we are in the people business, and our role and calling is to love and serve God’s people. I’ve also learned that sheep poop, but that doesn’t stop the shepherd from caring about them and for them. There is so much we think we can accomplish by our own strength, but the church is, was, and always will be maintained by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s God’s church, and at our best, we are stewards and servants of what God is doing in the lives of the people he gives us to care for. Anytime we try to build it on our own strength, it’s an exercise in foolishness.
What can you tell us about your experience serving as a Black man in these various ministry contexts?
I have found an incredible warmth and encouragement and support—really the love of God—that is uniquely manifest in a predominantly African American church environment. There’s just something special about the Black church. I had many “big mamas” and aunties and folks who were looking out for me. There was a real sense of family and community in that congregation.
I also feel a level of gratitude for serving in the Covenant context, because in the area where I served, we were a 90-plus percent African American congregation in a demographic that was 1 percent African American. So when I went out to engage with my peers and colleagues and brought a perspective of the gospel and of the kingdom of God from my own cultural perspective, that was generally not seen as valid in the larger Christian church conversation. I was often the only one with a perspective and a voice to raise issues or have interpretations of Scripture that applied in ways that other people had the luxury of not reading it that way and not caring about it.
There were times when that felt lonely. It felt heavy. In the last five or 10 years amid all the social unrest and things coming up in this country, it was really frustrating to be surrounded by people—who I called brothers and sisters and teachers and ministers of the gospel—who were so callous and uncaring about life and death issues, about the real suffering of their Christian brothers and sisters, issues that just would not register in their theology or their understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.
What word do you sense God speaking, either to the Covenant at large or to the Pacific Southwest Conference in particular?
The author Phyllis Tickle spoke at Midwinter a few years ago. In her book The Great Emergence she talks about this 500-year cycle of renewal within the Christian church. She called the current cycle “emergent Christians.” I think that’s what I sense God doing in this season. We are in the midst of one of those 500-year cycles, and I see God calling his church back to himself, reminding us that we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation and that the dividing walls that Christ tore down, that the world causes us and encourages us to build back up around ethnicity, culture, class, and social-economic status—all of these things that we in American Christianity tend to cling to. I think God is calling us to be the ones who are tearing down those walls and to become part of the movement of reconciliation to bring a broken church back to a holy God.
Finally, are there books on your nightstand, podcasts on your phone, or shows in your streaming queue that you have really connected with at this moment?
A book that I have read lately that has been really powerful for me is Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, by Willie James Jennings. Also, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to develop myself as a leader, so I’m reading The Next Level, by Scott Eblin. It’s a great book on leadership principles. For fun, I’m learning Spanish and playing guitar. So that’s where I’m spending my free time.