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Former White House aide enjoys 'different' church role

8/28/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Erik Alsgaard*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - By age 40, Mike McCurry already held his dream job: spokesman for the president of the United States, Bill Clinton. Four years later, in 1998, McCurry had left the White House to do, as he says, "something different."

That something turned out to be, in part, serving as church school superintendent for his home congregation, St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Kensington, Md.

"I had always been active at St. Paul's, even throughout my time at the White House," McCurry says. "Shortly after I left the White House, Chet Kirk, who was then the senior pastor, came to me and said, 'We'd like you to take a job that we've not been able to fill here at St. Paul's for a long time.'"

McCurry had led a very public professional life for years, facing lights, cameras and reporters on a daily basis and enduring the media vortex of the Monica Lewinsky-President Clinton scandal. Today, life is different.

"A lot of my career was devoted to public service," he says, "but I've become more convinced that in the small, quiet places of the faith community, you can have a bigger impact" on people's lives.

"I feel more satisfaction and sense that I am impacting more lives running a Sunday school program in Kensington, Md., than I felt was accomplished as president of the United States' press secretary," he says.

He will experience politics of another sort when the 2004 General Conference meets in Pittsburgh. He is one of nine lay people elected to represent the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference at the church's top lawmaking assembly.

"For me, it's going to be fascinating to learn a lot," says McCurry, who will be a first-time delegate. "I know there are a lot of issues that are very important and that we'll have to wrestle with, but I'm going to try and keep my eye on the ball, which is a broader set of issues, I think."

As a lifelong United Methodist, McCurry is aware of issues facing the assembly.

"Look," he says, "we can get all caught up in issues related to Bishop (Joseph) Sprague (Chicago Area) or to homosexual ordination or the things that have traditionally captivated General Conference, or we can get on with this very serious business of how we go out there and reach new people with the Gospel."

McCurry also has words of wisdom as a veteran of the political process.

"It goes without saying that I've been in places where I see how political conflict can gum up the system, and I know how desperately important it is to break through those political conflicts and try and reach consensus. I think we need to be a sort-of consensus-driven church and magnanimous in our openness to each other, so that we can get on with the business of making disciples, because that's what we need to be concentrated on, I think."

For McCurry, politics and faith can mix well. On his journey of faith, he has recognized that "a high-spirited group of people who are driven by faith in God can do an awful lot of good work that many would consider political, even though it's not partisan political."

Now a consultant for corporations and nonprofits that vary from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Anheuser-Busch, McCurry works on improving communication with what he calls a "skeptical public in the age of nonstop information."

McCurry has served on the board of governors at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington since 2000, and is involved in a startup Internet company, Grassroots Enterprises Inc.

"They (Wesley Seminary) are trying to develop some capacity for distance learning and for networking their partner churches through a thing called the Wesley Seminary Network," McCurry says. He has co-chaired that project with fellow United Methodist Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and Colin Powell's son, he says.

While at the White House, McCurry grew increasingly concerned about the amount of information bombarding Americans on a daily basis, and how people would - or would not - be able to sort out what matters most.

"In the 21st century, groups are going to have to think more clearly about how to communicate effectively and, in the church, they're going to have to think about how to evangelize in a virtual way," he says. The denomination's mass-communications campaign, "Igniting Ministry," is good, he says, but "if you rely on … primarily television, you miss many opportunities to connect with people."

That's especially true of young people, whose primary communications mode is "skipping back and forth between instant messaging and cell phones and e-mails," he says. "I think that's where we have to locate the church's outreach efforts - right there where people are encountering information."

McCurry says the United Methodist Church has been reluctant to communicate its message to the world. "We somehow or another have not expressed ourselves well when it comes to making disciples, and I really am excited about seeing in the church the idea that we, too, can be just as evangelical as more fundamentalist denominations."

For McCurry, faith and career are intertwined. "The expression of my faith is almost seamlessly interwoven with my professional experiences. It's all kind of come together nicely for me."

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*Alsgaard is managing editor of the UMConnection newspaper and co-director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference. This story originally appeared in that paper.

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