While a student at Perkins, church planting was the last thing that the Rev. Leslie Stewart (M.Div., 2014) thought she wanted to do.
“I thought church planters were a little weird,” she said. “I mean, who would want to work that hard?”
But, as fate would have it, Stewart has spent most of her ministerial career so far planting churches – and will continue to do so, as she starts a new position as missioner for congregational vitality-new communities for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Before this new position, Stewart most recently served as church planter and then as vicar of Resurrection Church in Plano, Texas since 2016. She began her new position November 1, 2021.
Even though church planting wasn’t what she planned to do, Stewart says her Perkins education – combined with her years of military experience – prepared her perfectly.
Attending Perkins marked the beginning of Stewart’s second career. Although she felt a call to ministry early in life, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force to help pay for her education.
“At that point my life took a prodigal turn,” she said. “I found I really enjoyed what I was doing in the military.”
She began in Air Force Special Operations where she met her husband, Mike. She was selected for a commissioning program and graduated with honors from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1999, earning a Bachelor of Science in Human Factors Engineering and was commissioned as an officer. As an aerospace physiologist, she completed Physiology Officer Flight Training and trained pilots and aircrew at the Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. When her son Ryan was born, she transferred to an F-16 unit at the Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth until she left the military to attend Perkins.
The years in Special Operations – as part of a team that deployed nearly 300 days a year, in 18 to 20 different locations round the world – taught her skills for maneuvering in unfamiliar territory.
“In Special Ops, you go into an area where there’s no structure, and you form relationships, both inside and outside of your organization,” she said. “Because there’s no structure, you have to create it. That’s very similar to what you do when you plant a church in a community.”
Prepared by Perkins
Perkins also helped her prepare.
“I owe everything to Perkins,” she said. “I learned the skill set I needed for church planting. It’s the place where I discovered the pieces of the mystery that God was leading me on, and how the church could innovate for the new era that we are entering.”
She remembers clearly her first class was with Dr. Theodore Walker, who made her feel immediately at home at Perkins. Dr. Hal Recinos’ Church and Social Context class introduced her to key concepts about meeting people where they are — “I didn’t understand it at the time, but what I was looking at was how to read a community and bring people around the issue they’re facing. God was giving this learning to me early, before I could reject it!” Dr. Roy Heller’s classes taught her how to read Scripture and to pay attention to “first things” – the way God set the stage for what was to come and spoke to people in the wilderness.
Now, as Stewart continues her education, pursuing a D. Min. at Perkins, she’s also thankful for Dr. Suzanne Johnson’s course in social innovation and social entrepreneurship.
“Her course was eye-opening and lifegiving; I learned models and systems for leadership and innovation in the church,” she said.
The Church of Get Back Up
Her years in the military also gave Stewart a heart for serving veterans. In her previous position, as Vicar of Resurrection Church in Plano, she added a special service tailored to veterans and first responders and their families.
“Anyone who had experienced trauma would be more comfortable with this service,” she said.
She started the service by adapting a model first developed by the Rev. Sean Steele, an Episcopal priest in Spring, Texas. The service is built around a high intensity workout; the liturgy was based on the Book of Common Prayer. Because people who have survived trauma are often uncomfortable sitting in pews, worshippers sat in a circle to hear the sermon before the workout.
“We were trying to reach people who would not otherwise come through the church doors,” she said. “We used innovative problem solving to come up with that process and the liturgy.”
Warrior Church and looking at Christian teaching through the lens of trauma, is the subject of Stewart’s D. Min. dissertation.
“Warrior Church was designed to help the church treat moral injury and trauma,” she said. “I want to help the church reimagine its goal in healing people with trauma.”
Stewart told worshippers: “Ours is the only religion that worships a savior who was wounded, who suffered and died. I talked about the Post-Trauma God and how to live a resurrected life. We called ourselves the ‘The Church of Get Back Up.’”
In her new position, Stewart will bring all of her education and experiences to bear as she serves on the diocese’s Mission Amplification team, charged with the support and coaching of 154 existing congregations, twelve churches planted in the past four years, six campus mission hubs, and fourteen other campus missions. The team continues to plant new congregations and missional communities and expand to additional campuses.
“It’s very exciting to be on the leading edge of innovation,” she said. “Church planting requires adaptive leadership. I love the fact that, in my new job, I’m multiplying my reach. I get to help other congregations when they have problems and need to innovate.”
Stewart has been married to her husband, Michael, for 28 years, and has a son, Ryan, 21, and a dog named Conrad.
And while she’s been out of the Air Force for more than 10 years, she hasn’t entirely given up flying. During the height of the pandemic, she took up paramotoring, a type of paragliding that involves a powered backpack.
“It’s kind of like an airplane in a backpack. Look it up on YouTube!”