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Phil Corr: Purpose Driven, Hitting on All Cylinders

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

 “If Jesus had to take His disciples aside and explain His parables to them in private, how are we supposed to understand them?”

     An interesting question and one the Tuesday morning Bible study group at First Congregational Church (UCC) of Escondido, CA (FCCE) tackled with enthusiasm.

     “Think of them as fish hooks,” offered Pastor Phil Corr, “fish hooks from which dangle enticing tidbits of bait.”

     The seven women and one man who were studying the synoptic gospels in parallel,  took the bait and the discussion of mustard seeds, sowing good seeds among bad and leavened bread proceeded to range far and wide – from the use of poetic license to make a point to the Jesus Seminar’s conclusion that these were, indeed, the actual words of Jesus and, gradually, to the excited recognition that each tale spoke of positive growth, of starting small and developing, of “becoming more than we are.”   One “ah ha” moment after another.  

     Oh – about that original question.  It was concluded that Jesus was teaching the teachers who were soon to shoulder the task of carrying his message to the world.  And, as for “us?”  “Jesus left us to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, identify with aspects of the parables as a start to understanding them.”

     So, what of Phil Corr, the man leading this “equivalent of auditing a Master’s course”?

     How did he, an “irenic Evangelical who is essentially Reformed in theology and purpose driven in philosophy, a pastor-teacher who equips the saints for the ministry” find his way to the United Church of Christ (UCC) and to First Congregational?

     “The UCC and I started about the same time,” Phil says.  “I was baptized at First Congregational Church of Riverside as an infant and confirmed there at 15.  The sovereign Lord drew me to Himself six months later.  A year after that I told people I was going to be a Congregational minister.” 

     Still, as an Evangelical who shuns vertical inclusive language (“Jesus called God Father and instructed His followers to do likewise”) and sees the Bible as inerrant, he appears at first glance an unlikely candidate for a UCC pulpit, perhaps especially in Southern California.  Not to the people of his church, however, nor to Félix Villanueva, Conference Minister of the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC, who recently wrote Phil saying, “I believe God has great things in store for you and FCCE as you minister together.”

     Born in Rochester, Minnesota, the son and grandson of doctors, Phil grew up in Riverside, CA where his father practiced medicine and his mother served as director of health services at Riverside Community College.  Two sisters, Cathy and Nancy, completed the family.

     Phil’s childhood was, in many aspects, idyllic, filled with music, baseball, Young Life activities, sailing, swimming and travel.  It was not, however, without tragedy.  His father died when he was 11 and he was raised from then on by his mom, maternal grandmother (“the spiritual matriarch of the family”) and sisters.  “I was not without male role models,” he reports, “among them a long-dead ancestor, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, one of those profiled in JFK’s Profiles of Courage.  He was cited for giving the eulogy of an abolitionist from the Northeast while a senator in Mississippi and for speaking out against free silver.  He served in all three branches of our government – as a senator, as Secretary of the Treasury and as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.”  Another, an uncle, set him up with his first job – selling oranges from the back of an old pickup truck.

     Phil, who holds a BA in Classics from University of the Pacific, earned his Master’s degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (New Testament Studies; Missions, with an emphasis on Islam, and Urban Studies) and his PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary.  His dissertation, “The Field is the World:” Proclaiming, Translating, and Serving by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810-40, was published by William Carey Library in 2010* and, in the words of Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., Professor of Church History and Ecumenics at Fuller, provides “…an antidote to many of the spurious claims that Michener made popular in his treatment of early missionaries in Hawaii.”

     A variety of jobs and adventures followed, among them teaching at a Bible College in Jakarta and pastoring a number of UCC and CCCC (Conservative Congregational Christian Conference) churches.  There were problems and disappointments, too – denial of ordination at 25, divorce after 10 years of marriage, ‘de-linking’ from a church (“forced out by a small group after leading a church through numerical, financial and spiritual growth”) and cancer (he is now cancer free).

     Back to his current church.  What do they want of Phil Corr? 

     “In listening to the folks at FCCE,” he replies, “I have heard three words that are very important to them:  stability, health and vitality.  I have put these into prayer items as “Biblically-based and Christ-centered stability,” “Holy Spirit healing” and “healthy Christian vitality and growth.”

     Believing in the ministry of all, Phil encourages members to examine their own talents and abilities with an eye to putting them to work at church and in the community.   He asks, “How can we help our church shine?  What ideas do you have that can inspire others?  What do you know that will make a difference in the world?”  And adds, “I’m not up there preaching just to exercise my gums…I’m leading them into new ventures – and adventures.”  Response has been good – small things for now, such as organizing the ushers and using a few minutes of worship time to sign messages to shut-ins and others unable to come to church – small things that, Phil is confident, will lead to bigger ministries.   “I encourage people to serve where their passion and abilities intersect – and work to help them discern and practice their spiritual gifts.”

     Growth is revealed in the “numbers,” as well, with several new members and weekly attendance up by 25% in the months he has been at FCCE.  There’s talk, too, of starting a contemporary service – IF, and for Phil it’s a big “if,”  it can be envisioned and developed not as a means of “providing warm fuzzies” for a few members but to “reach the un-churched and the de-churched” by “focusing on worship of the true and living God.”

     Stressing the importance of moving ahead appropriately, Phil quotes Philippians 3:12-14, “…leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead…go straight for the goal…”  Describing his goal, Phil says he wants to “see the church individually and corporately develop a purpose driven ministry that would lead to hitting on all cylinders in being the church, loving God, making an impact for Christ in the community, and reaching the world for Christ…becoming more and more a community church.”

     His reward?  What does he “get back?”  “The privilege of preaching God’s holy written Word and being with members and friends and community members during good times and challenging times.”

     Another reward is the involvement of his entire family – wife Karin, daughters Sarah and Betsy – in the church, especially in its music ministry.  “They inspire me.”

     Asked about personal interests and hobbies, Phil revealed an unexpected talent – bell ringing.  Seems he took two classes of carillon at UC Riverside while still in high school, which gave him “a Quasimodo Complex – having the ability to make mistakes that are heard for miles around and yet have total anonymity!”

     Asked what else he’d like to be remembered for, Phil said, “as a loving husband and father who served in his generation for Christ’s glory.”

     What about FCCE?  “That they loved and followed Jesus by developing a purpose driven lifestyle that involved worship, outreach, discipleship, service/ministry and missions.”

     What does he wish for the UCC?  Before answering this Phil asked some friends for their thoughts.

     One replied that “My understanding of the UCC is that it is not paying attention to the teachings of the Bible, but listening to the secular media and people trying to destroy Christianity.”  In response Phil suggests that UCC leadership needs to heed rather than attack such perspectives, recognizing they are not shared lightly but with great pain.

     Another, a currently serving UCC pastor, noted that “now that many separatists have left…ECOTs (Evangelical Conservative Orthodox Traditional) are in many places now being valued and welcomed.”  To this Phil comments that churches have “separated” but are not separatists and suggests UCC leadership should seek to understand what would lead churches to go through the wrenching process of departing from a denomination.  He also notes that the last two Conference Ministers with whom he has worked have welcomed an Evangelical as pastor of a UCC church.

     The final comment, also from a UCC pastor, expressed the thought that members and congregations are “rediscovering the rich inspirational and life-changing power of reading the Bible prayerfully, seeking to hear the StillSpeaking God above the cacophony of current cultural confusion in morals and spirituality.”  To which Phil commented, “Well said!”

     Also well said were his father’s final words to him (in his will):  “To Philip I leave, with some regrets, the politics of life; and ask him to remember that love is more important than knowledge.”

     Point obviously taken.  Phil Corr has both and knows on which to lean.

*Available on line (Print on Demand) at missionbooks.org – click on “Dissertation Series”

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