As Rev. Kyle Durbin arrived at Frostburg United Methodist Church in Frostburg, Md., last summer, he brought with him a wealth of experience in theatre ministry – not just the occasional chancel drama, but theatre as a spiritual practice that transforms lives.
A top priority for Durbin, who received his Master of Divinity from Wesley in 2012 and plans to graduate with a Doctor of Ministry next spring, is the focus on process over product.
“There are all these high school kids working with their school theatres, but they aren’t getting cast in the big roles,” he said. “So the intent was to take all the youth, no matter how talented they are, and give them this opportunity.”
Durbin honed that community building process at his previous churches, where theatre became the focal point of community-wide endeavors.
“We started doing dinner theatre so everyone could get involved,” he said. “We’d have church members working front of house, in ticket sales, and preparing dinner and hospitality. It becomes a churchwide event.”
Durbin likens the experience to that of the early church, when worship happened in small groups and often involved food. “During tech week, we have a meal together every night,” he said, referring to the sometimes-grueling rehearsals when costumes, sets, and lights are integrated.
As a community’s commitment grows, so do the productions. Godspell is a particular favorite. “It’s the show that I’ve done at every church I’ve been at,” Durbin said. “It tells the story of the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s the perfect avenue to starting a new ministry, to letting a church see how effective this ministry can be.”
Durbin felt his own call to ministry as a sophomore in high school. His pastor offered some sage advice. “He told me, ‘Go to college but don’t major in theological studies, you’ll get all that in seminary. Major in one of these areas where you are gifted.’”
He majored in theatre performance at the University of Maryland. “For all four years I knew that I was going to go to seminary,” he said. “I was unique. All my peers were planning on going into professional theatre.”
The difference proved significant. “For me, it’s all about the two months leading up to the performance, not the performance itself,” he said. “During those months, an impact is made in the lives of these youth. Disciples are made and communities are formed.”
Prior to arriving in Frostburg, Durbin served in communities where theatrical opportunities were scarce. “Here we’re in a historic district, and one earmarked as an arts district,” he said of his new home, which boasts a university theatre program and a professional company.
“I really had to look at how theatre ministry is different from standard community or professional theatre,” he said. The answer was clear. “We are all-inclusive. Here it’s not about your talent, experience, appearance or your social status. It could be your very first show, and you might get cast in the lead.”
Durbin’s ministry dovetailed beautifully with his D.Min. course work in Theology and Arts. “One of my earliest courses was with Lisa Cole Smith whose church in Virginia is theatre-based,” he said. “They utilize arts of every practicum as their sole ministry focus.”
Smith’s theatre course proved, once again, the power of theatre as a community builder. “We were a 10-person cohort and in one week we became this family,” Durbin said. “Now we have a community of artists that is intimately connected because of the time we spent together.”
Talking about Wesley stirs deep emotions for Durbin. Despite his early call, he hit a stumbling block after graduating from college. “I was the lead singer in a punk rock band,” he said. “We were doing well, touring, selling records. I needed to decide whether to live that life or to take my call and vocation very seriously.”
He answered the call, and is deeply grateful for what followed. “I needed a place where I was being uplifted and surrounded by hope, and I got that from Wesley,” he said. “I got it from the professors and the administration and from my peers. It was amazing and life-changing for me.”
Now he looks forward to applying his new learning. “Worship has always been the place where I find the most affirmation of my gifts and talents,” he said. At Frostburg, one result of those gifts has been an Alternative Worship series.
“I didn’t want it to be the standard Contemporary Worship,” Durbin said. “The idea of Alternative Worship integrates all this stuff that I’m learning. We use drama, music, the visual arts.”
The worship space itself is often transformed. “We can have our congregants sit at tables instead of in rows,” Durbin said. “I mean, if we’re going to experience communion together, why not be around the table?”
Keenly focused on theatre as a ministry, Durbin steps beyond standard theatrical practice. “It’s about giving people space to experience each other’s pain and joys,” he said. “It’s about being a community, not just an audience.”