When Gianfranco Grande got the email, he was on vacation in Vienna with his wife. “I need to answer this,” he said to her.

Gianfranco is Executive Vice-President of Partners for Sacred Places, a national non-profit which has helped congregations in all 50 states maintain their historic spaces and remain a vital part of the social fabric.

Gianfranco has consulted with thousands of churches. His schedule is packed well into the future. So why did he choose to take time from his European vacation to answer an email from another church?

Because the email came from First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh.

Of course, it’s Gianfranco’s job to know historic churches, so maybe it’s not that surprising that he already knew about us, about the unique beauty of our building and the amazing history of what God has done through this church. Not long after Gianfranco answered my email, he was on an airplane to meet with our session and staff to talk about partnering with us in determining the feasibility of a capital campaign.

Why a capital campaign?

The biggest need is the roof. The Vermont Green Slate, built to last 125 years, is 114 years old. Rusted drain pipes allow water to seep behind stone walls. Layers of dirt block over half the light coming through the magnificent Tiffany windows.

Old buildings have accessibility issues. The only handicapped entrance is in back, a hundred-yard trek from the front steps. Steam pipes are 114 years old. The church’s mission to the city might be dramatically enhanced by a new kitchen and cafeteria space and other improvements. There is no shortage of challenges. And given our location in the heart of a thriving downtown, there is also an abundance of opportunities.

This week, Gianfranco and his colleague Sarah Jones began conducting interviews with congregation members and members of the community. They’ll report to us in a few weeks on the feasibility of raising the funds needed to build for the future.

I have met people all over the country who know the beauty of our building and the impact this church has made. Let’s dream together about how we can preserve and build on this legacy for future generations.


Did you have a favorite teacher?

Did you have someone who saw something special in you, challenged you, and encouraged you to be your best? You’d do anything for a teacher like that. You wanted to do well, not to get their approval, you already had that; but because they genuinely shared in your delight.

For me, that teacher was Captain David Whitlock, the speech and debate coach at the Air Force Academy when I was a cadet. “Coach” put together one of the top programs nationally, even though all his students attended the Academy for reasons other than debate. Coach took us to tournaments all over the country, usually via antiquated T-29 trainer airplanes. Coach was our mentor and guide, showing us a bit of what life was like outside a military college.  

I’d looked for Coach many times over the years to tell him how much he meant to me, but without luck. Then recently, a friend from the debate team found me online and we started checking in. Soon there was a group of us exchanging emails. We all wanted to know, “Has anyone heard from Coach?”

Coach had had the same impact on all of us.

And then, lo and behold, Coach was found! At 84, he was still teaching speech to undergrads near Dayton. He even sent us a selfie. There was that same smile, surrounded by a new batch of students.

One by one, my old teammates started checking in. They all said what I had wanted to say all those years. I hesitated as I tried to come up with just the right words. Then last Sunday, I came home from church and there was an email from Coach to us all.

And there was this: “Tom Hall, we knew you’d do something very special with your life, but I was a little surprised that you jumped ahead of the rest of us in that waiting line to heaven. Nice move. One distinguished career just wasn’t enough for you, was it?”

I lost it. And even as I write this, it’s hard to see the screen. Before I could say “thank you,” the words of approval had been on my teacher’s lips.

This is how God is with us. God is waiting to tell us what we long to hear. Before the words of thanks are on our lips, he says to us, “There’s something special about you.”

First, repent

I’ve been pastor of this amazing church for ten years, a milestone that seems to call for reflection. What have I learned? What surprised me? What could I have done better?

Ten years ago, I thought that I might have something to offer in the way of experience that would be helpful to the church. Now it seems to me that my role is insignificant, at least compared to what God is doing here and has been doing here all along.

Both the joys and the challenges are greater than I imagined.

The church has transformed me far more than I’ve transformed the church.

The thing that surprised me the most? How hard it was to name a problem. You would think that you could identify a problem, fix it, and then move on. That doesn’t seem to apply in church. When I pointed out what I thought was a problem, people got hurt or mad. As our church secretary frequently said, “You expected this to be logical?”

I’m starting a sermon series on Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah was a long way from home; an exile in a foreign country; when he got word how bad things were back in Jerusalem. Instead of getting angry or depressed, Nehemiah prayed…and prayed.

And Nehemiah repented. Not just for his own sins, but for the sins of his ancestors and for the sins of the entire Jewish people.

I had no idea just how many jobs pastors do, especially city-center pastors. Now I think the job is to first repent, cast ourselves on the only One who can really fix things, and then work as hard as we can.


Back in my Air Force days I was once assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, in Brussels, Belgium, where I chaired a committee of senior officers from 15 nations. The committee met twice a year, once in Brussels and once in another capital. My job was to get the nations to share information and work together so our troops would be protected if we had to go to war.

People told me that international duty would be frustrating, that it would be hard to get nations to cooperate. But I found headquarters duty back home, like in the Pentagon, far worse. Back home there were more politics, and more people promoting themselves and their personal agendas.

The members of my committee were required to represent the country that sent them. The other nations not only expected it, they depended on it. How else would they know what each country would do in a crisis?

No one enjoyed having to take a stand that was unpopular with the other countries in the alliance, but often that was part of the job.

You had to do the will of the one who sent you.

In his last great prayer in John 17, Jesus said to God the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” Jesus was talking about his disciples, but he was also talking about us. If you are a Christian, you are sent to represent Jesus Christ to the world. You’re sent by him. God’s mission, Jesus’ mission, is your mission. Sometimes (most of the time) you’ll be taking a stand that’s unpopular.

It’s easy to see that we live in a world in crisis. 

More than ever, our job is to represent the one who sent us.