DALLAS—The Rev. Mike Baughman had never made a half caffeine latte, but that’s what the man across the counter wanted. So, after a quick consultation with the barista on duty, the pastor got to work and produced a frothy drink that sent his middle-aged customer away happy.
It was one more learning curve. Mike Baughman’s had a lot of them lately.
“Nothing in seminary prepared me to open a coffee shop,” he said.
The coffee shop is named “Union,” and it’s also a church plant led by Mr. Baughman, with major financial support from the UMC’s North Texas Conference.Located in a bar-dense area just east of the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas, Union has since its late November opening seen a brisk traffic from students, as well as from curious older folks, not a few of them United Methodists pulling for it to sell enough coffee to succeed.
For Mr. Baughman, it’s a long-sought chance to try to find a financially sustainable model of reaching young people wary of a traditional or even contemporary church setting.
“I’m really treating this as a laboratory,” he said. “This is a chance for us to do research and development on alternative ways to fund and do church. This is an experiment on what it means to be a generationally specific church.”
There’s no cross-and-flame at Union, and no other conspicuous Christian imagery. The shop’s name echoes “communion,” but also “student union.” Though Mr. Baughman’s clergy appointment is here, he’s adopted the decidedly un-churchy title “community curator.”
He plans to phase in Bible studies and a Tuesday night worship service, but for now, he’s focused on getting the coffee shop thing right.
Brew it, and they will come—provided you create the right ambiance, including free Wi-Fi, conference rooms where students can cram for tests together, and closing time as late as 2 a.m. during SMU’s exam week.“We want to be the best place to study in Dallas,” Mr. Baughman said.
Very much a cheerleader for Mr. Baughman—and seeming a bit like an anxious father—is the Rev. Jim Ozier, director of new church development and congregational transformation for the North Texas Conference.
“Mike’s done a lot of homework,” Dr. Ozier said. “But I keep reminding him, ‘You’ve got to sell a lot of cups of coffee to cover rent and salaries.”
Beyond church walls
Church and coffee are hardly a new pairing, and many churches—particularly megachurches—have long had a coffee shop on campus. What’s far less common, but apparently a modest trend, is the off-site, nonprofit coffee shop sponsored by a church, subtly extending ministry into a secular setting.
Ebenezers in Washington, D.C., a ministry of National Community Church, is a nondenominational example pointed to by Mr. Baughman and others. But there are UMC representatives, such as The Loft Coffee Shop, run by the Riverside Community Church in Spring Branch, Texas, and The Journey Java Connection, a downtown storefront extension of The Journey, a new UM community in Crestview, Fla.“My heart has always been to reach out and find ways to be the church in the community, outside the four walls of the church,” said the Rev. Sean Peters of The Journey and The Journey Java Connection.
Union pushes things farther in that it is its own church plant—not an outpost of a particular church. Indeed, Mr. Baughman likes to talk about Union as being part of a geographical parish that includes nearby student apartments, bars and other businesses. He says Union will tend to the coffee, pastry and Wi-Fi needs of residents, but also to their need for spiritual support and a sense of community.
The church is failing, in part, because it doesn’t have a parish mentality, Mr. Baughman feels.
“Over time we’ve shifted from being responsible for the needs of the people in our area to being responsible for the spiritual needs of the people who walk in our doors,” he said.
Mr. Baughman might seem an unlikely candidate to create a sanctified Starbucks. At 34, he’s no longer among the youngest clergy. He and his wife, the Rev. Rachel Baughman—executive pastor and head of children and family ministries at University Park UMC—have the joyful anchor of four small children.
What’s more, he’s in some respects a traditionalist, being a third generation Methodist pastor who was educated at Duke University and Princeton Theological, and who loves preaching from the pulpit. He’s good enough to have been given a prime preaching spot at the North Texas Conference’s annual gathering, last summer.
But in an early appointment, Mr. Baughman had the heartbreak of creating an alternative worship service for young adults, only to see it eliminated when the church fell on hard times. He acknowledges that his young congregation, while growing and seeing professions of faith, didn’t carry its weigh financially.
“That led me to wonder, ‘How is it that the church, in some way that’s financially sustainable, can reach out to young people?’” he said.
In 2010, the North Texas Conference sent Mr. Baughman and the Rev. Megan Davidson, then a student at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and now a campus minister, to the New Church Leadership Institute. But they weren’t exactly knocked out.
“We felt like all the new church start models we were hearing about were the ‘get there before the Baptists model,’ where you look for the edge of suburban growth, plant a church and let things grow up around you,” Mr. Baughman said. “But that’s just membership swapping. That’s not really church growth.”
He and Ms. Davidson would write an essay—published in the Reporter—in which they suggested other models, such as having a coffee shop, thrift store or sliding scale preschool that could generate funds for ministry focused on people, particularly young adults, who are wary of the traditional church.Mr. Baughman’s long talks with Phil Dieke, youth coordinator of Highland Park UMC, and Neil Moseley, minister to youth and families at University Park UMC, confirmed for him that the church was reaching only a sliver of the young adult population and that starting a coffee shop church would be the best alternative strategy.
An August 2011 meeting with a group of 12 people at Munger Place UMC in Dallas, helped Mr. Baughman flesh out the idea. He soon got initial support from Dr. Ozier and the Rev. Clara Reed, Metro Dallas district superintendent.
Then came a cold water meeting with the North Texas Conference cabinet.
“The cabinet said, ‘We’re going to need some real numbers, we’re going to need a real business plan, we’re going to need a lot of things,’” Mr. Baughman said.
A psychology and religion major in college, who never took a business or economics course, Mr. Baughman dug in and began to develop a business plan and supporting spreadsheets. He also learned to speak coffee, which has its own curious lexicon. (“Barista,” for example, is an Italian word, coined only in the 1980s, for someone who tends a coffee bar.)
The North Texas Conference eventually agreed to provide $250,000 over three years and to appoint Mr. Baughman, who had most recently been an associate pastor at Custer Road UMC in Dallas, to start the coffee house church.
That green light led to a frenzied period full of crucial decisions. Mr. Baughman notes that he had lots of free help, including from Mr. Moseley, who came up with the name, and from Hillary Barnard, associate youth pastor and communications specialist at Highland Park UMC, who designed the logo, incorporating its alliterative slogan—“Coffee. Community. Cause.”
To Mr. Baughman fell such tasks as finding the 3,850-square-foot location, getting it remodeled and equipped, hiring a manager and team of baristas, and securing all manner of permits.
The opening came and went, and he’s still a bit dizzy.
“I’ll finish one punch list and I’ll sit down and look around the room and realize the long lists of things that are still yet to be done,” he said.
There have been some stressful moments for Mr. Baughman, including a late demand from the health department for what he considered an obviously redundant hand-washing sink. He has had the wincing experience of seeing students walk into Union carrying Starbucks coffee cups.
But Mr. Baughman is encouraged by early sales (three straight days in December, proceeds were strong enough to cover salaries and product expenses), frequent use of Union’s conference rooms by SMU study groups and others, and a crowd of 70 at a Friday evening storytelling event held on a stage in the shop’s main gathering space.
He brightens when pointing out the shop’s early “regulars,” such as Melissa Collier, a student at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.
“I’m spending more time here than in my apartment,” she said during a break from writing a paper on her laptop.
Ms. Collier notes that she and Mr. Baughman have prayed together, and she’s thoroughly on board with the idea of Union, where 10 percent of sales go toward other nonprofits, the first being the North Texas Food Bank.
“This is, honestly, the future of ministry,” Ms. Collier said.
But Mr. Baughman acknowledges that Union is finding its way, and may face challenges with a secular audience as it adds Bible studies and a worship service in coming weeks.
Mr. Baughman said his launch team had intense discussions about whether Union is a church that happens to sell coffee or a coffee house that happens to have a worship service. He’s asked them to reject such either/or thinking.
“We are redefining what it means to be a church, and we are redefining what it means to be a coffee shop. . . . At the end of the day, we’re both, and we need to be true to both,” he said.
Along with the $250,000 from the North Texas Conference, Mr. Baughman has raised about $200,000 from other sources, including the Texas Methodist Foundation and a handful of “covenant churches” that strongly support his experiment. He figures Union needs about $700,000 in outside financing over three years.
By then, he projects, the coffee shop church will stand alone, sustained by sales and donations from those in its community.
“Once we hit that point,” said Mr. Baughman, sounding like both an entrepreneur and evangelist, “we start raising funds to open two more.”