When Victoria Sun Esparza graduates in May, she’ll earn two seemingly disparate degrees: a Master of Divinity from Perkins School of Theology, and a Master of Arts in Design and Innovation from SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering.
The two fields may seem different, but Sun Esparza already sees how they’ll come together for a career that makes her passionate.
“I’m fascinated by the intersection of design-thinking and solving problems that resist traditional solutions,” she said. Design-thinking, she says, is a methodology that can be applied to any field, to help understand a problem at a deeper level – and she thinks it can help churches and faith-based organizations.
As a sort of laboratory for her dual areas of academic work, Sun Esparza is working as Director of Family Ministries at White Rock United Methodist Church. She is also a part of the team exploring new approaches to church through a second campus called Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space (formerly known as Owenwood United Methodist Church). White Rock took ownership of Owenwood two years ago after the latter church closed. Instead of selling the 4.5-acre property, the North Texas Annual Conference supported White Rock’s desire to use the church building and land to serve the community. As a result, Owenwood is renting out space to nonprofits and community partners, including an after-school program, an urban farm, a diaper distribution program and other programs for young kids.
“We want to see our neighbors connected to God and to one another,” Sun Esparza said. “But first we need to help meet their basic needs.”
Sun Esparza’s background in design-thinking pushes her to focus on people more than solutions when it comes to solving problems. As a result, she has helped the staff at White Rock and Owenwood engage the community in creative ways to learn how the church might serve them better. Sun Esparza is teaching the staff how to develop deeper relationships with the community in untraditional ways, like doing laundry at local laundromats and hanging out at skate parks, to better understand the community’s normal, everyday lives.
One new approach being taken at Owenwood is Dinner Church. Instead of gathering for worship on Sunday mornings, neighbors gather over free meals for fellowship and conversation. Victoria is helping design the experience of Dinner Church along with her husband, Josh Esparza, the campus pastor at Owenwood. Because Owenwood’s neighborhood is a “food desert” – an urban area lacking grocery stores selling healthy food and produce – Dinner Church as well as the urban farm will continue growing to help meet basic needs while creating community.
Sun Esparza is also working with groups across the country as a design consultant, including the North Texas Annual Conference, to help bring design-thinking to churches as they search for fresh ideas for ministry.
“It’s helping churches to think more innovatively,” she said. “It’s taking a problem, thinking more deeply about it, going out to the community and starting to test and prototype new ideas.”
Candidly, Sun Esparza shared that she has at times vacillated between two choices – a career in design versus working in a church setting. Church work and ministry have proved frustrating at times. (Before coming to Perkins, she worked at CitySquare, an urban mission and community development program in Dallas.) But having one foot in each of those two different worlds, she believes, helps her think more creatively.
“Institutions exist to survive,” she said, “but innovation happens on the edge.”
As another example of her innovative thinking, Victoria practices an unusual form of spiritual formation: composting.
“I’m a big believer that it’s a really important spiritual practice for me,” she said. “It’s taking the waste and trash in my life and intentionally caring for it, so that it breaks down and turns into a place for new life to grow.”
Victoria is attending Perkins along with her husband, Josh – but that wasn’t exactly by design. The couple met when they were teens, while attending a Southern Baptist church; now they’re both United Methodists.
“We were both really looking for an education that would give us some space to learn together, to give us new language to think about God and the world and the role for the church, and to grow in that together,” she said. “As it happens, it made more financial sense for us to attend together rather than one at a time. It feels accidental, but I think this is what we are both supposed to be doing.”