Sometimes they vent. Sometimes they cry.

Almost always, they wonder: What’s up with a black-shirted, white-collared Episcopal priest hosting simple, weekly listening sessions at a local Starbucks?

The Rev. Marc Vance, pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, acknowledged that the grande idea was hardly his own. Christian ministers have been stirring faith over coffee at shops nationwide for a few years.

“What I wanted was a high-traffic area,” Vance said, sitting at the Starbucks on National Road in Columbus recently. “I told the manager specifically I would not bring any kind of pamphlets from my church, and I certainly would not harass people or ever make them feel uncomfortable. I’m just here to listen to people.”

Not to preach. Or sermonize. Or even advise, really.

In a world bursting with talk and text and babble, he’s all ears.

Which is why the sign he sets up a small sign that reads simply, “I invite you to enjoy a muffin and tell me your story.”

As he spoke on a Tuesday afternoon, he sat at a small table just inside the door, right behind a large placard promoting Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The advertising swayed him. Although he normally gets a tall cafe mocha, he ordered the seasonal latte instead to complement a light lunch of apple slices and almonds.

The first time he got permission to become the Coffee Clergyman, if you will, in August 2015, his first taker was a late-30s man who opened with, “Look — I’m a good person. So why do I need church?”

Vance makes no attempt to be the Wikipedia of church or biblical history, nor the ready responder of all things spiritual. He allows people to meander their way through without his steering. As he sees it, literal listeners need not manipulate.

“You have to be willing to walk with people from right where they are,” Vance said.

Men and women alike have sat with him. Almost all have been among the Christian faithful. Many speak of the pain of divorce. Others relay the sting of church rejection.

“Some will say, ‘I didn’t experience God’s grace in this particular church tradition, so now I’m going to find it in a church elsewhere,’” he said.

Vance harbors no plans to build his church through his outreach, although one local couple now attends at St. Paul’s after meeting him at Starbucks. Purposely, nothing readily identifies him with his parish.

“To be honest, I’m not nearly as worried about church membership numbers as I am about the message of the Gospel,” he said. “The Gospel literally is good news.

“If it’s not good news, then it’s not the Gospel. If you’re preaching fear, then it’s not good news and not the Gospel. If you’re rejecting people on the margins of society or pushing them to the margins, then that’s not good news or the Gospel.”

Dan Wallace, generations minister at First Christian Church in Columbus, has seen customers comfortably conversing with Vance in the shop.

“What he’s doing is really commendable,” Wallace said. “Of course, you’ve got to able to be comfortable with that. But I respect him for doing it. Just his mannerisms seem to be able to draw people in.”

The Rev. Canon Bruce Gray with the Episcopal Church Diocesan office in Indianapolis likes the idea of Vance’s coffee shop visits, along with those of other area Episcopal priests. An Episcopal church in Brownsburg launched about 18 months ago after a priest gained something of a following from his coffee shop sessions.

So, clearly, something is percolating.

“This kind of thing really makes us vulnerable to people in a really healthy way,” Gray said. “Literally, a welcome sign is out for them.”

Gray expressed no surprise that Starbucks’ younger clientele, perhaps skeptical of organized religion as national studies have shown, have skipped plopping in front of Vance and other listeners to bluntly offer that today’s church lacks relevancy.

“For someone totally unchurched, ministers are invisible,” Gray said.

Yet, at least six other ministers have stopped at his table, mostly to encourage him.

“No matter how disparate their traditions, no one has given me a hard time,” he said.

He would love to see other marketplace ministers sitting at spots around town as designated listeners.

“This is not competitive. This is about the gospel,” Vance said.

Muffin with the minister

Who: The Rev. Marc Vance, pastor at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2651 California St. in Columbus, doing roughly weekly, one-hour listening sessions with the general public.

When: Usually from 1 to 2 p.m. Thursdays (but it is dependent on the rest of his ministry schedule).

Where: Starbucks Coffee, 1585 N. National Road in Columbus.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.