“Go west, young man” is the phrase Americans think of when contemplating our nation’s westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean. But James O’Neil “Neil” DeAtley—originally from West Union, Ohio and living in Independence, Missouri earlier this year—went east; to Springfield, Virginia to be exact.
DeAtley, age 28, moved to Washington, DC in October to become minister of Community of Christ’s congregation nestled in Springfield’s Ravensworth Farm subdivision that was built in the early 1960s where the Beltway meets Braddock Road. His goal in Springfield: to “form new expressions of ministry,” he explained, by revitalizing membership and programs for a church that typically sees less than twenty people at services each Sunday.
But his position is more than that. He will, in effect, work like a traveling minister. His official title is Chesapeake Bay Mission Center Invitation Minister and his duties will have him roving from Baltimore to Richmond. DeAtley’s base will be in Springfield but he may not be there each Sunday. He will host meet-ups, sessions of home church, brunches and other get-togethers, as well as conduct interviews and build his online presence—all in addition to preaching or presiding in many Community of Christ congregations.
“Here in Virginia, I hope to participate in an ongoing ministry with a wide variety of people. I want to get my hands dirty and reach out to meet the needs of every single person in the community,” he said. “The field is white and ready for harvest, so this position seemed like such a natural fit.”
His road to northern Virginia was paved with his church’s good luck in the form of a real estate transaction.
As the small Ravensworth congregation attempted to maintain membership, church leaders were debating whether they should close their church or move the congregation to another location from its property tucked against the Lake Accotink park in a corner of the neighborhood. It is the only non-residential building in the subdivision, other than the elementary school and pool.
To the rescue came a local man who asked the church out of the blue in late 2017 if it would subdivide its property so his family could build a house against the Accotink expanse. The church agreed.
“I wanted to find land to build my home on,” said Peter Tran, an IT professional for the federal government. “It was by fate that I drove by Community of Christ and noticed the nice, flat land next to them. At that point, I said to myself, ‘This is it.’”
Tran, who had been looking online and driving around desirable neighborhoods seeking a place to build, communicated with church officials, learning that its property was already subdivided and exactly the size he wanted.
“Numerous negotiations, three approvals and eight months later, we finally closed on the purchase of the land,” he noted, explaining that Ravensworth Farm met all of his requirements for a place to live, which included successful schools, a location near the Beltway, a large lot, reasonable price, and no HOA.
When asked how it would feel to have the first new Ravensworth address in the almost 60 years since the subdivision was founded in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, Tran said, “I think it’s cool! I like to be a pioneer in anything new and exciting.”
Able to afford the building for years to come but wanting to increase their focus on outreach, church leaders used some of the sale proceeds to create an outreach position for the Chesapeake region termed “invitation minister” in the Community of Christ denomination. According to DeAtley, such a position is primarily engaged with “welcoming people to encounter the living Christ and to experience the blessings of community.” With their new full-time employee’s help, the Springfield flock hopes to reinvigorate and grow its congregation that sits right near the center of Fairfax County and its population of more than one million people, while also assisting other Community of Christ groups in the region.
“It wasn’t ten years ago we had over thirty families attending our church,” said Deb Van Heest, Co-Pastor for the Springfield church. “As of today, our congregation has dwindled to a faithful dozen.”
Van Heest called their hiring of DeAtley an “audacious and ambitious plan” that was the church’s attempt to “stop focusing on what we didn’t have—people to fill our pews” and instead “step out in faith.”
Since the decision to sell part of its land, the church has boosted outreach efforts by hosting recitals, weddings, town halls, Accotink park board meetings, scout troops and even the annual Ravensworth Fall Festival. Last year, they also held a benefit dinner for families affected by the government shutdown.
For DeAtley, who had spent five years teaching voice and general music for grades seven through twelve, the timing turned out to be perfect.
After finishing the first of his three-year master’s degree in divinity at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky, he was spending the summer of 2019 studying at Community of Christ’s international headquarters in Independence, Missouri. That’s when he learned about the opportunity for a five-year invitation minister placement in the Washington, DC area.
DeAtley notes that many churches all across the United States are experiencing shrinking congregations; Community of Christ is not facing anything unusual. The decline is such a trend that students in his seminary study it and proactive ways to respond.
“We don’t know what our churches will look like in fifty years,” he said. “Church is constantly changing. It has ever since its inception in the time of Christ more than 2,000 years ago.”
He described his denomination as one full of “loving, inclusive people” and noted that, as he would have expected, the Springfield congregation has welcomed him with open arms. Getting to know his churchgoers and “prayerfully responding to their needs as best as I can” are among his immediate plans.
“I want to respond with an active spirit by providing sanctuary and a listening ear for people who seek a caring faith home,” said DeAtley about his new Springfield role. He notes that it was someone else’s invitation to learn more about Community of Christ that led him to where he is today.
“One simple encounter, one invitation could transform someone’s life forever,” DeAtley explains. “There are seekers both within and outside our walls whose spirts are yearning to go deeper.”