An Interview with John Lentz

What role does church play in your life?

“Church is of central importance to me, not because it’s my profession and pays my salary, but because it’s an institutional expression of my faith. It energizes and underpins everything I do. It’s the lens I see my world through. It fills my life with meaning, community, intellectual stimulation, moral agitation, and comfort.”

What first attracted you to Forest Hill?

“I’d been an Associate Pastor in Virginia for 5 years, but when they were looking for a new Senior Pastor, I thought, “It’s time to have my own church.”

“Deanne showed me the ad for this position to me and said ‘I think this is something you want to take a look at.’ I remember the ad described Forest Hill as this dynamic, challenging, socially engaged, church in an inner-ring suburb–and somehow I sensed this was not the usual Presbyterian church. It seemed to have a sense of having identified its future–and a bit of a swagger–and I was intrigued.

“So I called and was the first to contact the Pastor Nominating Committee. They had literally just started and weren’t ready to start interviewing, but we were on our way home from vacation and the church was kind of on the way, so I asked if I could stop in for a look.

“I still remember how I felt the first time I saw the Sanctuary. I was standing in the Narthex looking through the glass partitions at the bright space with all of its windows and I just fell in love with the space.

“But I didn’t hear anything for months. And when the Committee finally called, I was in Florida interviewing at a different church. That’s when they kind of panicked and said ‘But we HAVE to talk to him!’

“They finally got a hold of me, and we came for an interview, and loved its location and mission in the community. I was drawn to the reality of the 50-50 racial breakdown. I really liked that Cleveland Heights was a buffer between the inner city of Cleveland and the wealthier suburbs.”

What makes you proud to be part of Forest Hill?

• When people outside the church–even outside the presbytery–say, “Oh, Forest Hill Church, that’s a really dynamic church”
• When our reputation and standing in the community causes people like the City Manager of Cleveland Heights to come over to my house to talk about issues
• When I preached at the National Cathedral in Washington DC and more than 60 Forest Hill members showed up
• When I think about how we attract and maintain top quality staff. They are strong and gifted leaders – truly outstanding. I’m proud of our relationship because it’s rare to have such collegial, supportive and fun relationships with other staff members; and
• The fact that Forest Hill has had only three Senior Pastors since World War II.”

If you could wave a magic wand and make Forest Hill exactly as you want it to be, what would you do?

“I’d get rid of the pews in the Sanctuary and do something really respectfully architectural with our wonderful sanctuary space.I’d turn it around so that the Narthex wasn’t cut off from the rest of the church, and enclose the Courtyard as the main entrance–a really welcoming space to walk into instead of the long narrow Fellowship Hall hallway.

“I’d also have a video screen available for worship–not up all the time, but to enhance our worship  occasionally with visuals. And I’d like to see our building even more accessible for people with disabilities.

“I also want to see Forest Hill home to an even more diverse community in terms of race. We have good intentions but haven’t reached the tipping point yet. I don’t want to lose any of our current staff, but I’d love a racially mixed staff.

“Welcoming, accessible, innovative, diverse are the markers of a great church. I think we’re definitely on the right trajectory. We have a great mixture of different ages in our lay leaders, and I’m proud of how we cooperate. But I’d like us to get even better at being welcoming and inclusive and inviting so newer members feel this is their church as well.”

Why do you give your time and money to Forest Hill Church?

“Because I’m at my best when I do–it’s fun–and I want to be part of a community that claims Jesus as its model. Plus it’s a way to support the community, especially when the church is clear about its needs and why it’s asking.

“Education, my social life, worship, entertainment, friendships, softball, all my relationships come from here—without Forest Hill, there would be a huge void in my life and my family’s life.

“I would want to be part of Forest Hill Church even if I wasn’t on staff here.”

Describe the one thing we need to keep “doing or being” in the next ten years.

“I think it’s absolutely imperative to continue emphasizing small group spiritual formation. People want to belong to something, and small groups are where people get that sense of belonging.”

What do you believe FHC is being called to become?

“I think we’re called to become kind of a hybrid church–one that respects tradition but is open to innovation and inclusion and moving away from institutional terms like reformed or–I mean, the music Anne Wilson chooses, and the way she mixes in all different types of music, that’s a perfect example of our new hybrid way of being.

“There’s a significant market share of church-goers who attend large, conservative churches not because of the conservative theology but because of the exciting stuff that goes on at those churches. So we want to offer exciting programs but keep providing progressive theology.

“I want people to come to Forest Hill who are young at heart, interested in pushing boundaries, intellectually and spiritually engaged, who want their faith to be focused on personal transformation and social transformation. I want Forest Hill to be the magic wand that makes this happen.”

What do you think are the biggest issues facing Forest Hill right now?

“The biggest issue right now is the viability and vibrancy of Cleveland Heights. If Cleveland Heights fails and our core membership moves away, Forest Hill Church could disappear as well. Our future is tied to Cleveland Height’s future, and Cleveland Height’s future is tied to the City of Cleveland’s future.

“That’s why our inter-generational events and relationships need revitalization. We need new ways of bringing people together. The old traditional ways aren’t working as well as they used to–we need new ideas to get different groups of people together.

“But I don’t think a church has to be all things to all people. I’d like to see area churches collaborating with each other, sharing resources and programs.”

John summed up his optimism for Forest Hill’s future by noting that we’re not cutting edge, we’re not new age, we’re not really pushing any envelopes, but we’re willing to try new ideas because we live out of a value of trust.

“We’re at a good crossroads now, where we can feel the tension between honoring the strength that’s found in continuity and the need to always continue innovating. And I’m looking forward to Forest Hill’s future as evangelically open-minded, progressive church that transforms lives and then transforms society.”

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