May 16, 1997 in Nation/World

That Full-Time Religion The Rev. Richard Lang Preaches Spirit Belongs On The Job

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:profile

Richard Lang makes his debut at 7 this morning.

For six years, Lang quietly has pursued a dream that at times he couldn’t even articulate.

He left a well-paying job as pastor of a comfortable middle-class church in Spokane to string together part-time jobs and work six days a week.

Today, more than 750 people are expected to cram into a banquet hall at the Red Lion City Center for the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, which Lang organized this year.

Participants will pray for civic leaders and discuss methods of living out their Christian values in the secular world.

In short, they will begin to work on Lang’s dream of transforming culture.

Early in his career as an ordained Presbyterian minister in Southern California, Lang realized that churches, schools and government aren’t the main forces shaping American society. It’s the marketplace.

If Christians want to transform society, they should start at the heart of the culture, which for many people is the workplace, said Lang, 50.

“Churches tend to operate in isolation,” he said. “Great things are happening inside churches, but they tend to be self-contained.”

Instead, Lang argued, the church should be present in every facet of life.

“When the church fails to address the ethics of corporate culture, by default we abandon people and abdicate responsibility.”

For 25 years as a pastor, Lang was haunted by that nagging responsibility.

Finally, in 1991, he took the leap. He quit his job at Manito Presbyterian Church and founded his own ministry, Leadership Northwest.

The idea was to provide a resource for other programs designed to promote faith and values in daily life and work.

To that end, Lang has helped found more than a dozen ministries including workplace prayer and support groups, pastors’ networks and mentoring programs.

Pointing to concrete results is difficult. Most of the work Lang has done to this point is simply connecting people who wouldn’t normally form relationships.

“He’s building networks, introducing people to other people,” said Dale Dupree, owner of Pella Window Products in Spokane and a former member of Lang’s board of directors.

“He’s been hanging in there for a long time without a lot of compensation. I hope he can stay there.”

Building up his enterprise has been a slow and grueling process. Rarely is there enough money to pay himself a salary.

Instead, he teaches two classes at Whitworth College and works part-time at Mission Community Presbyterian Church. His wife took on full-time work teaching at Spokane Community College to support their four children.

Lang laments the fact that he can’t help his two oldest children more with their college expenses.

His ambitions are so big and his donations so few, the prospects of pulling a full-time director’s salary from his nonprofit corporation is slim.

Even the Prayer Breakfast, as successful as it is, will barely break even.

As a fund-raiser, he is his own worst enemy.

A voracious reader, Lang thinks fast and rarely pays attention to details, preferring to dwell on the big picture.

When eating out, rather than waste time scanning the menu, he orders a generic dish or duplicates a companion’s order. That way he can get right into the conversation, which inevitably evolves into a heady philosophical discussion.

“You have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity to do this job,” he said. “You have to be able to allow the future to unfold.”

But many potential supporters are puzzled or confused by his vague goals.

It’s very difficult for any one person to grasp all of Lang’s vision, said Terry McGonigal, Whitworth chaplain and close friend.

“Rich is taking a hard look at what is going on in the community with a combination of intellectual rigor and pastoral concern,” McGonigal said. “He can get out in front and create quite a vacuum, and a lot of people can get sucked in.”

But just as many are left behind because they are uncomfortable with Lang’s intangible goals and ideas. As a remedy, Lang has surrounded himself with people who can manage the details of his big dreams.

His administrative assistant and only paid employee, Kathleen Perry, said she frequently has to “pull him back to earth.”

The president of his board of directors, Dean Whitman, said he is the heavy who constantly reminds Lang that his ministry has little money.

“If we can just settle down and find a focus, there will be a lot of people who will rise up and say, ‘I want to support this,”’ said Whitman, a personal financial consultant.

The Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast has helped provide that focus.

The event was sponsored for the past 34 years by the Christian Businessmen’s Association. After last year’s breakfast, that group relinquished responsibility and Lang took over.

It gave him the opportunity to leave his thumbprint on something tangible.

He assembled a steering committee of 25 people and by design began breaking down the stereotypes surrounding the event.

“Some folks have created this dichotomy in their mind (regarding Christian churches) of conservative and liberal,” he said. “My sense is most people and most churches are in the middle.”

The Prayer Breakfast was perceived as a conservative endeavor. Lang purposely reached out to a broader constituency and the results were overwhelming.

More than 750 people bought tickets, almost double last year’s turnout. Two dozen elected officials are planning to attend, ranging from U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt to the mayor of Millwood.

“We started out with eight people per table,” said Perry. “Then we went to 10. Now we’re at 11 and some people will be sitting in chairs on the periphery.”

Next year, Lang and Whitman have reserved the Ag Trade Center and are shooting for signing up 1,000 people.

The bigger it is, he said, the more chance he has to bring together people from different factions and disciplines. Only then will it be possible to talk about changing culture.

“Some Christians risk isolationism. Others risk assimilation. It’s a tight rope walk between the two,” he said. “That creative tension is essential to a mature faith.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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