Oak Cliff Pastor Is
       “Minister of the Year”

The phrase “Minister of the Year” conjures images of sleek
suburban churches filled with young professionals driving nice
cars.  Those images couldn’t be further from the truth for the
Rev. Steve Digby, pastor of Oak Cliff Christian Church, who
recently won that honor from the Christian Church (Disciples of
Christ) in the Southwest.  Digby won the honor at the end of
one of the most grueling years he’s ever had in what is
perhaps the toughest church job in his denomination in the city
of Dallas.  

Like many old-line, inner city congregations, Digby’s Oak Cliff
Christian Church used to be a jewel.  Located in a park-like
setting on Kiest Boulevard, the church is the oldest Disciples of
Christ congregation in the Oak Cliff neighborhood.  During its
long ministry, it has helped to establish eight other Disciples
congregations in Oak Cliff.  A generation ago, its pews were full
and its coffers overflowing.

Time has not been kind.  Oak Cliff Christian fell victim to a
changing neighborhood, like so many other churches.  The
relatively well off middle class Anglos who once lived in the
area long since moved to the suburbs.  Though many
maintained their membership at Oak Cliff Christian, their
children and grandchildren did not.  The increasingly elderly,
white congregation has found it difficult to reach out to the
waves of new immigrants moving into Oak Cliff.

Needless to say, Digby’s path to “Minister of the Year” was not
easy.  He’s had the unenviable job of helping the congregation
realize that its present situation was untenable.  Recent studies
showed that the congregation’s money would be gone in the
next two years.  Stark alternatives included selling the property
and renting back the building, cutting all staff, or simply going
out of business.

Digby looked for more faithful alternatives, ones that would
allow Oak Cliff Christian to continue its century-plus tradition of
witness and reach out more effectively in its neighborhood.  
The church embarked on a highly-visible advertising campaign,
including billboards on US 67.  It began a Sunday evening
outreach service, using contemporary music styles.  Both
efforts made a difference, but not necessarily in ways that
made the congregation more viable.  The evening service, in
particular, has turned into a thriving ministry for at-risk teens in
partnership with Juliet Fowler Homes.  Lives are being
sustained through it.

The underlying problems remain, though.  Digby gathered with
several other Disciples ministers each week for prayer and
reflection.  They looked around at the shrinking pool of
Disciples of Christ churches in the area and envisioned a
radical solution.  Rather than carrying on as isolated, dying
congregations, why not join forces and build an intentionally
multi-cultural ministry?  There were precedents in the area.

Rosemont Christian, another old-line Anglo church in Oak Cliff,
recently joined forces with Spanish-speaking
Iglesia Cristiana
Nueva Vida
.  Both congregations were determined to go
beyond the uncomfortable formality that often marks such
partnerships.  Rosemont and
Nueva Vida took the risk of
blending everything: governing bodies, property, and future
direction.  Though the English and Spanish congregations still
worship separately most weeks, they gather as one at least
once a month.  Will it work?  Time will tell.

Digby’s vision was to take the Rosemont experiment a step
further.  He proposed uniting the four remaining Disciples
churches in Oak Cliff into one new congregation.  Rosemont
and Oak Cliff Christian, both Anglo, Denley Drive Christian,
which is largely African-American, and
Iglesia Cristiana Nueva
, would each sell their existing facilities.  They would build a
new church, with room for each of the ethnic traditions to
worship separately.  Yet as in the Rosemont-
Nueva Vida
experiment, the groups would commit to worshiping and
working together as well.  Digby saw it as an opportunity to
witness to the unity of the church despite differences in
language and culture.

Needless to say, the idea was not embraced without significant
opposition.  For many, giving up long-established church
locations and traditions was unthinkable.  It didn’t matter that
those locations and traditions were no longer viable or
relevant.  Others in each of the congregations resisted the idea
of blending with other ethnic groups, despite assurances that
particular forms of worship would continue.  Digby found
himself many times at the center of a storm.

It’s a place he’s been before, though.  Born in Louisville,
Kentucky, in 1951, Steve is the son and brother of Disciples
ministers.  One of his earliest memories is of the Ku Klux Klan
burning a cross in the family’s front yard in 1954.  Reaching
across ethnic divides has always been controversial.  As
Steve's father Art put it, “If you’re not making someone mad in
your ministry, you’re probably not doing it the right way.”

Steve's father and mother, Art and Joy Digby, left Louisville and
settled into a long, vital ministry at First Christian Church in
Arlington, Texas.  His brother David took the direct route into
the pastorate, having served First Christian Church of Ames,
Iowa, for twenty-three years.  Steve, though, resisted any
thought of following them into ministry at first.  He went to the
University of Texas instead to study photojournalism.

How did Steve, the rebel son, wind up where he is?  “God’s
call,” he answers.  “There’s no other way to explain it.”  God’s
call has led Steve, wife Gwen, and their three children through
pastorates in Sulphur, Louisiana; Grand Prairie, Texas;
Jackson, Mississippi; and finally Oak Cliff.

Though the Oak Cliff Disciples did not embrace Digby’s vision
in full, they have decided to move forward together.  Rosemont-
Nueva Vida voted recently to sell their property on Hampton
Road and join forces with Oak Cliff Christian.  The
congregations plan to unite at Easter, 2007.  Plans also include
construction of a new gymnasium/family life facility on the Oak
Cliff campus, with hopes of a more intentional outreach to the
children in the surrounding area.

Steve harbors no illusions about the obstacles ahead.  There
will be the challenge of combining Anglos and Hispanics,
Rosemont and Oak Cliff Christian, different traditions and
different ideas.  Steve hopes the new United Christian Church
of Oak Cliff will be a “church that welcomes all people.”

Serving as midwife at the birth of a new model of doing ministry
has been a struggle.  Yet it is a necessary struggle if the
ministry is to continue.  Of the nine Disciples congregations
that once called Oak Cliff home, only three remain.  It’s time to
come together, Digby says, and pray that God’s Spirit grants a
new start.

This “Minister of the Year” doesn’t serve a suburban
congregation with prosperous members.  He hasn’t found the
path easy or the doors swinging open.  Somehow, that makes
the award all the more appropriate.

©2006, John Cunyus
All Rights Reserved

John Cunyus is a freelance writer working in North Texas.  His work is available at

Words, Images, and Layout ©2006, John G. Cunyus
All Rights Reserved

John Cunyus is freelance writer working in North
Texas.  His work may be viewed online at