Q&A: Meet Marcus Atha, Pastor of North Broadway United Methodist Church
Marcus Atha is a devoted husband, dedicated father, fervent justice seeker, curious world traveler and seasoned pastor who believes passionately in love, equality and the restorative power of the church. He grew up as the son of a Methodist pastor who advocated for LGBTQ rights long before society accepted it and then entered the ministry himself, working his way into United Methodist Church leadership. In July of 2015, he returned to his roots to lead North Broadway. Here, he talks about why he picked theology over medical school, his stance on LGBTQ acceptance in the church and his excitement about launching a new sister site, Short North Church.
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to work in the faith community?
A: For a long time, I wanted to be a professional football player. Then a doctor. Then I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But when I was ages 11, 13 and 17, I went to the country of Haiti to Port-au-Prince and visited Grace Children’s Hospital. I had experiences there that I did not understand because of the poverty and the contrasts compared to where I was living and what I was used to. When I was a senior in high school, my awakening happened to some of that reality, and I decided I wanted to explore ministry. I went to the University of Cincinnati and studied theater and communications because I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do ministry. But after graduation from UC, I decided to enroll in seminary at Drew Theological School. Within a few weeks, I knew it was 100 percent clear I was where I was supposed to be. I’ve never looked back.
Q: Have you gone back to Haiti?
A: I lead a trip to Haiti with my two daughters and 10 other people from the church in 2016. The last time I was there was in the ‘70s. I recognized some things, but much had changed. Poverty is still very present. When I took them, we went with my dad, who helped to found International Child Care 50 years ago, and we went at the 50-year celebration. I also took one of my sons to Africa to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the other to Vietnam and Laos. The experience of understanding other cultures and the challenges that people face in developing countries has changed their perspective and the direction of their lives.
Q: How has your personal faith journey shaped your life as a pastor, husband and father?
A: In a few ways. First, I’ve learned a lot about how to grow a church and how to be a husband and father and pastor by some of the failures I’ve experienced. The first church I started in Manhattan lasted two years, we closed it, and I moved to Ohio. What I learned during that time helped me to be successful to start Epiphany UMC in Loveland, OH. Epiphany is an incredible, loving community and I’m glad it turned out the way it did. Also, growing up I was exposed to faith and justice leaders who were changing the dynamics in big ways, people like Henry Nouwen and William Stringfellow and Norman Vincent Peale. As a theater major in undergraduate, I learned a lot about myself and others by studying characters. I can’t think of a better major in college than theater to help prepare you to be in the community of the church. When I was 10, I went to a protest in Downtown Cincinnati for a Presbyterian minister who was put in jail for protesting the Vietnam War. That lit a fire for justice inside of me that continued throughout seminary and into this time, around equality for people and human rights in general. Being exposed to that, and what I saw in Haiti, let me know that there were things that weren’t right in the world, and we as humans could affect that by the way we organize and the way we have a spiritual dimension to our lives and realize that we are a part of something greater. It allowed me to connect my story and human experience with the divine nature of God. When I combined those two things, it made for something much greater than if I just relied on my human experience.
Q: What’s kept you in love with ministry?
A: In the StrengthsFinder, my two top strengths are Restorative and Activation. In the church, that’s a big playground. With the church kind of shrinking, there’s a lot of restorative work to do, and with that activator strength, new church development has always been in my blood. Even in seminary, I helped to start a church in Manhattan, and then that opportunity came again later in my career in Cincinnati when I helped launch Epiphany United Methodist. We started in ‘94, and it’s continued to grow. I later moved to Powell and then became the United Methodist Church’s district superintendent here in Columbus. Opportunities to restore and grow the church and it’s people help to keep me in love with ministry.
Q: What brought you to North Broadway?
A: I was the Capital Area North District Superintendent for six years, a position that included working with all of the United Methodist congregations in the Central Ohio area. As a part of that role, I was also leading the new church development ministries of the West Ohio Conference. That was turning into a full-time position, and so part of the plan was that I would leave the District and go into that full time. And then North Broadway opened up, and the Bishop came to me and said, “Would you want to consider this?” I started thinking about it, and I loved that this church had a storied past and was here in Clintonville in this vibrant area. This church has a long history of powerful justice ministries and it is a reconciling church—very open and affirming. Both my wife and I felt a clear and strong call to North Broadway, and we just said, “Let’s do it.” And as a result, this opportunity to start this new church in the Short North with Amy [Aspey, pastor of Short North Church] came the next year. It’s like I’ve combined the best of both worlds.
Q: It’s particularly important to you that everyone has a seat at the table. Why—and how does that play out?
A: When I read the Bible and understand the teachings of Jesus Christ, it leaves me without a choice to work to make sure all people are welcome to the table and welcome in church and not discriminated against, whether it’s around racism, women’s rights or LGBTQ rights. The Bible is clear about the inclusion of all, and it’s discouraging to see folks misinterpret the context of scriptures to discriminate against people. The church has always tried to be a leader in that, but sometimes we are slow to realize what God is trying to say to us. We used scriptures to justify slavery, and the church split over that, and it was finally the government that helped pave the way for that level of racism to start to change. Then it was scriptures that the church used to keep women out of being ordained ministers, and the church finally acknowledged that they were misinterpreting those scriptures. And now we’re using scriptures to discriminate against LGBTQ folks, and the more I study, the more I’m convinced those scriptures are not being used correctly. The context is misunderstood. When people come to the church and come to the community, they start to get a glimpse of something much bigger and greater than they’ve ever allowed their mind to think about. That’s what’s so invigorating about being a part of this church. When you see someone who’s been so defeated and thinks that God doesn’t love them, come here and experience this welcome—it’s just so powerful to be a part of a story like that.
Q: What challenges is the church facing—and how is North Broadway navigating those?
A: The United Methodist Church as a whole is divided over LGBTQ people and what the scriptures say about it. North Broadway has made it clear that we are on the side of the Bible and the full inclusion of LGBTQ people. We do a lot of work to foster that, from legislation to protesting to letter writing to faith development among people looking for a place. This church has a lot of gay and lesbian couples and singles, and they are open in this church and this church affirms them and they serve in all capacities. Short North Church will do that as well. My hope is that the UMC will stay together and affirm full inclusion for LGBTQ folks so we can continue to share this powerful story of love.
Q: What are you most proud of professionally?
A: I’m proud that this established church with a storied history has embraced major change with great energy and enthusiasm. As we have moved forward on this new path, North Broadway UMC and the community has responded with great numerical growth, great faith development, and as a result, great financial growth. For an established congregation to decide they want to do a satellite church is often a long and laborious process with some people saying “no” and leaving. None of that has happened. The partnership has been fully embraced. We’ve made so many major changes in two years here. Two years ago, as I became part of this community, the first thing I did was focus on engaging with the membership of North Broadway in six months of intensive listening – I met with small and large groups in people’s homes, at the church and around the community. I sought to understand deeply what was working and where the needs and gaps were in the ministry of North Broadway. We have built our planning, investments and mission around those conversations. What a story—about an established congregation that was dying, coming back to life and growing. My hope is that eventually we’ll look back at this and see some key factors that will help other churches do some of the same things.
Q: And what are you most proud of personally?
A: There are often times when ministry be a 24/7 job, and a lot of ministers can get off track in that balance of family and work. When I look back at the 30 years, I think I’ve balanced that really well. I don’t think my kids would say, “Dad was always gone.” I think having that work/life balance at home and with the congregation, has made me a better and more effective pastor to the community. My wife and children have always been fully engaged in what’s going on here, and they love the church and our community.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: At any given time, I am reading several things. I’m always reading Thomas Merton devotions. Additionally, I’m reading this David Field book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease, and The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. I’m also reading our Lenten devotional, Embracing the Uncertain.
Q: Favorite way to spend a free hour?
A: Hiking through the woods. I like the exercise part of it and getting back to nature. A couple years ago we went on a family vacation to Utah, and we stopped at many places on the way for big hikes. On one of the days, it was just my two sons and me. We did a 20-miler. It wasn’t just smooth flat walking. We took a lot of water, but by the end, only one had some left. We were rationing it. As we got back, I couldn’t help but think about all of the stories we had told. And it was kind of a thrilling adventure that had some risk in it. It led to a greater level of storytelling from the three of us. That day was full of adventures.
Q: What would you say to someone who’s considering coming to North Broadway?
A: Come and know that this is a place where you can hear stories about life from people in the past that have universal messages about what we as humans are experiencing today. Sometimes the ways of the world call us to make important and crucial decisions in life, but when you hear these biblical stories about forgiveness, reconciliation, love and hope, you might come to a different conclusion about how to proceed in life than you would if you had only depended on the world to inform you. And that’s a spiritual dimension and a relationship with God that has powerful implications. When you combine positive vulnerability in a community setting with the biblical stories and everybody’s human experience, it allows your life to take a path that is much greater and richer and more fulfilling than it would have normally been. I think most people are searching for home, and I mean that metaphorically. I think we’re looking for a place that feels like home. The church community can provide that in relationship with God. I think most people navigate life without the knowledge of that steadfast love God has for us, and once you realize that love, your life changes.