This story was written prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to open restaurants at 75% capacity, Union Coffee is closely attending to Dallas public health indicators and has limited service to their walk up window, outdoor seating, and delivery. Union has also created a partnership with Parkland Hospital to deliver gallons of coffee and other beverages to their COVID Tactical Unit, which is bearing the brunt of Dallas COVID-19 ICU cases.
The Rev. Mike Baughman, MDiv/MACEF ’04, has been described as a risk-taker, trailblazer, and dreamer.
But he is also a third-generation United Methodist pastor who cares deeply about the future of church. Over the course of the last decade, this Princeton Seminary alumnus has worked on developing a coffee shop ministry in Dallas that could serve as a model for reaching young adults in the 2020s and beyond.
Union Coffee, launched in 2012, is a cafe, worshipping congregation, and community organization that serves the surrounding neighborhood. It draws young adults, welcomes LGBTQ people, and provides leadership opportunities for anyone who wants to get involved. Union also donates 10 percent of its proceeds to local causes.
“It’s not just a church that happens to run a coffee shop,” Baughman says. “It’s a coffee shop ministry that has a well-developed mission, purpose, theology, and strategy for how it is that serving a cup of coffee actually is ministry in and of its own right.”
And yes, Union serves high-end, specialty coffees. “Tried the Mayan Mocha and it was perfect!” one customer recently wrote on Yelp.
Baughman came to this alternative ministry from a more traditional one. The New Jersey native grew up in a churchgoing family and discerned his own calling early in life. But he always wanted to reach those who stayed outside the church doors.
“Some of what pulled me into launching my ministry with Union is my drive to connect with people outside or on the outskirts of the church,” he said. “And in traditional congregational settings, there can be a lot of conflict trying to pursue and encounter those folks.”
At Princeton Seminary, he found a key mentor in Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture, who has written extensively about making church relevant to young people and strongly supports entrepreneurial ministry.
Baughman also cites the influence of Cleophus J. LaRue, the Francis Landey Patton Professor of Homiletics, and an expert on African American preaching and worship. In LaRue’s courses, Baughman learned preaching techniques he would later incorporate into interactive, alternative worship styles practiced at Union.
After earning a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education and Formation in 2004, he moved to North Texas and worked in several suburban Dallas churches. Although he enjoyed those congregations, he felt pulled in another direction.
In working out the design for Union with friend and colleagues, Baughman had three goals: develop a ministry that would appeal to young adults, build a self-supporting model, and forge a connection with the broader community.
“The notion of a coffee shop kept coming up,” he said.
The initial financing came from various sources, including a grant from the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.
From the moment Union opened its doors, Baughman veered from traditional ways of running a congregation. He avoids top-down management, encouraging participants to come up with their own ideas for programming.
One of his success stories is a Baylor University nursing student who disliked church but enjoyed hanging out at Union. When this young man mentioned that he had long wanted to start a project to make capes for chronically ill kids, Baughman offered help in the form of sewing volunteers and fundraising support. The effort led to formation of a nonprofit organization, Capes 4 Kids. The nursing student, meanwhile, became deeply involved with Union, even organizing worship services.
“We saw the divine sparks in his idea and cultivated it,” Baughman said. “And he went from someone who left the church with his middle finger in the air to someone who dedicates four hours a week to the design and execution of worship. It’s a pretty incredible thing.”
He is not the only one.
Union has 113 people of different races, genders and sexual orientation volunteering in various leadership capacities, most of them under 35.
“Our assumption is that God is already at work in the people we encounter,” Baughman said.
“The real win for us is when these folks develop leadership skills and confidence at Union and then apply their gifts in the outside world.”
Union’s three worship services each week fit its eclectic culture. A Tuesday night gathering meets “in the round” with communion table in the middle, a conversational sermon, and the singing of popular songs. Sunday evening has Baughman taking the stage briefly to facilitate small group conversations on a particular topic.
“Be warned,” Union says on its website about one of the services. “We don’t always find the answer to the biggest questions.”
Yet many participants end up “falling in love with Jesus,” Baughman said. Some even find a calling in ministry. Ten people who became involved with Union are either working toward ordination or have become ordained. One is a current student at Princeton Seminary, and another graduated this spring.
“These are folks who just came through the Union pipeline,” Baughman said.
There have been challenges.
A steep rent increase forced Union to move in 2018 and to close for more than a year because of delays in permitting and construction. It is now located in a former parsonage on the grounds of the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.
Meanwhile, Union carries on with an irrepressible sense of mission. The next big project is to work with community leaders to develop an additional location in a predominantly African-American Dallas neighborhood.
Baughman also keeps busy speaking and writing about Union, helping others interested in exploring alternative ministries.
“We want to help others across the country figure out creative ways of learning from the work we have done,” he said. “We see ourselves as a laboratory for the church.”