By Dylan Thayer
The Rev. Rutger-Jan (R-J) Heijmen — rector of Holy Trinity, West Palm Beach, Florida — talks a lot about water, appropriately enough for a man whose congregation is a few miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. “All ministry is waxing the surfboard and waiting for God to send the waves,” he says.
The past three years of coronavirus have been filled with waves for Heijmen and for Holy Trinity. But God’s waves have nevertheless brought opportunities for him and his church, whose average Sunday attendance has grown by over 30 percent since 2019. When Heijmen arrived at Holy Trinity in January 2020, he appreciated the church’s strong culture — Heijmen repeatedly mentions his gratitude that the parish called him — yet was determined to make his mark.
“I’m not afraid to take risks,” he also repeats, and his résumé proves it. Heijmen has a highly entrepreneurial outlook on ministry, honed during many years of evangelistic outreach to youth and young adults and his role in planting a church in New York City.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the waves only grew higher. Before accepting the call to Holy Trinity, Heijmen served at St. Martin’s in Houston for seven years. Heijmen and his family decided that he would commute between West Palm Beach and Houston while his son finished his senior year of high school. After flights were grounded in March 2020, Heijmen remained in Houston for months, and had to shepherd his congregation through Lent, Easter, and beyond from hundreds of miles away.
In Houston, Heijmen produced as much digital content as he could, including not just the typical Coronatide fare of Zoom fellowship, worship, and ministries, but also YouTube daily devotionals for Lent, and sermons interspersed with clips from popular movies and TV shows. Holy Trinity’s vestry members and other laity were instrumental during Heijmen’s absence, creating a phone tree that ensured every parishioner remained connected to the broader congregation. “Our congregation was determined to do everything they could to stay in touch with each other,” Heijmen said.
Holy Trinity relaunched in-person worship in October 2020. Despite his comfort with digital media and the parish’s continued reliance on it — “streaming is going to be here forever,” Heijmen says, adding that more than 100 people still participate online each Sunday — Holy Trinity remained “determined to bring everyone back together as soon as possible.”
Again, Heijmen and his congregation were not afraid to do something bold and innovative to make it happen. “Our vestry worked courageously during this time,” Heijmen said, especially in launching an outdoor ministry in early 2021, which began as “Lent in a Tent” but lasted far beyond that liturgical season.
At first it looked as though Lent in a Tent might not launch. Heijmen awoke multiple times during the night before the first service, startled by a huge storm that drenched and battered West Palm Beach. But come morning, the tent was still standing, along with 80 worshipers, many of them new to both Holy Trinity and the Episcopal Church.
“Our parishioners were really excited about what we were doing, and that energy fed on itself, and they did a great job of inviting their friends, family, anyone they could think of, to church,” Heijmen says. By June, the outdoor service had grown to more than 300. Many of the newcomers told Heijmen and others that they had never enjoyed church so much and that worship at Holy Trinity was the highlight of their week.
Heijmen credits Holy Trinity’s inclusive culture, diverse congregation, and relatively casual worship setting for this atmosphere. “You can truly be yourself at Holy Trinity,” he says.
That attitude extends to political identity. “We are not here to be Fox News or MSNBC,” Heijmen says. “We are here to talk about eternal things, and we are here to talk about your things.” Heijmen believes the gospel demands our votes as well as our hearts. But he worries that being too political can distract from a Christian’s true focus: Christ.
Heijmen has not always thought this way, but he now appreciates that his younger, more politically vociferous self “did not change any minds or any hearts. It only hardened people who did not agree with me and emboldened those who did. I try to ask people to draw their hearts closer to Jesus, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. When people draw near to Jesus, their hearts begin to change, almost in spite of themselves.”
It is a recurring theme, and one Heijmen emphasizes when asked about how churches can better help their neighbors. Heijmen is full of pragmatic solutions: keep the service to a reasonable length, make sure the bulletin is newcomer-friendly, be missional in your outlook, make sure the rector has a good therapist, and do not be afraid to take risks.
Waxing the surfboard takes a lot of time and energy. But Heijmen is also clear on who moves the waves. “People really want to know about Jesus. That is why they are here,” he said. “Preach God’s mercy, grace, love, forgiveness for broken people who don’t deserve it. Teach the Bible as much as possible. People want to know what’s in there.”
A lifelong Episcopalian, Dylan Thayer is a TLC contributing writer.