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Ministering to Ministers Is His Game


OXNARD — Phil Graf is a coach, but not for a sports team. The Oxnard missionary challenges young people and pastors to be all they can be--on God's team.

While some church leaders may disagree with his unconventional approach, a number of former teens concede one point: Graf gave them an escape route out of their impoverished community.

When Manuel Gonzales was growing up in the La Colonia section of Oxnard, his parents, who were farm laborers, didn't have much time or money to spend on him. And as teenagers attending Oxnard High School, Gonzales said he and his buddies needed a role model.

Enter Graf, a then 31-year-old minister with big ideas. He came to the high school to work with teens. So the principal let Graf volunteer--monitoring students during lunch and breaking up any midday fights, Graf said.

"We laughed at him at first," Gonzales said, "because he was talking about God."

Over time, Graf won their respect, and later the teens vouched for him when others challenged his presence at neighborhood hangouts, Gonzales said. Eventually Graf exposed them to places outside their neighborhood--like camping, trips to Magic Mountain and to a retreat center.

"He gave us an escape out of here," Gonzales said of Graf's positive attitude and biblical teachings.

Now 40, Graf says some people--especially those in the inner city--are intimidated by the trappings of traditional, mainline churches.

"Some of it might be our dress, style of music, stained glass or the building itself," he said. "For those who don't go to church or the younger generation, church is pretty sterile and cold."

Graf, who once aspired to a career in sports marketing, said his idea was to package it differently.

At one congregation where Graf acts as a coach to the senior pastor, they don't even call it a church. It's called "The Bridge," and the 17- to 40-year-old members meet in a room on Santa Clara Street in downtown Ventura.

"He challenges me to think outside of boxes--outside of the ordinary things of church life," Pastor Greg Russinger said.

Challenging Orthodoxy

Graf is the unpaid director of Nieu (pronounced "new") Communities for Church Resource Ministries, an organization designed to strengthen and develop church leadership. The nearly 6-foot-3 preacher lives on 2 1/2 acres that is the site of a barn built in the 1860s by one of Oxnard's settlers. Graf uses the barn for retreats and periodic youth worship service that he calls "The Gathering."

"He would challenge a lot of traditional structures in churches," said Rob Yackley, vice president of international ministries at Church Resource Ministries, based in Anaheim. "He would challenge the time and energy that go toward ministries that are like a cul de sac--events that are not going anywhere."

He added, "I am sure there is a degree to which his unconventionality can come across as threatening. For some church leaders, it can even feel deconstructionist."

Thomas J. Curry, regional Roman Catholic bishop for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said, "This movement happens in Christianity periodically."

Recalling the Puritans, Curry said, "They wanted to get rid of vestments, incense and get back to the pure scripture. Even in the Catholic Church, some said it should all be very plain. On the other hand, some said we should give the very best in art, buildings and music to God."

Graf's interest in churches and ethnic groups began as a child growing up in the wealthy area of Stony Brook, New York. His father was a business manager at the college preparatory Stony Brook School and his family lived in an apartment on the campus.

Because of the school's financial aid outreach programs in the 1960s, he met academically strong students from poorer parts of the state, such as Harlem in New York City.

His family worshiped at the nondenominational Three-Village Church, which held its meetings in an American Legion hall. Without a permanent building, many church activities were done in the community, Graf said.

"I am a big believer that church functions better when people go out into the community, rather than inviting people into the church," he said. "That led me to a greater commitment to a nonbuilding church--a church without walls."

At New Life Community Church in Oxnard, one of the four Ventura County churches where Graf is a pastoral consultant, Pastor Steve Abraham said Graf is outstanding for his honesty and willingness to ask difficult questions. "He lays it out and isn't afraid of hurting someone's feelings."

The 250-member congregation meets in a banquet room at the Residence Inn by Marriott at River Ridge in Oxnard. Through Graf's coaching, Abraham said he renewed his sensitivity to the concerns of newcomers and created detailed plans for integrating new members into the church.

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