The Fruit of the Spirit in a Polarized World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Alice Tewell and Roger Gench

In this post-election season, we are all grappling with the question “What is next?” And in our polarized context, “What is our calling as Christians to witness to our faith?” How do we embody the virtues of the gospel message as we live out our faith in a public way in the world?

In this workshop at the 2017 National Gathering, we will explore such questions. We contend that there is no more important task for Christians at the present time than to embody the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — as political virtues.

These virtues are central not only to our personal lives of faith, but also to how we live out faith in the public sphere. We will share spiritual practices we use at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., that help us cultivate these virtues in our own lives of faith. When these spiritual practices take root in us, they nurture an engaged spirituality that guides us in our justice work as we seek to address the profound polarizations in our country and world. We believe that by embodying these spiritual practices, we are empowered to seek a radical reconciliation that pursues justice for the oppressed, standing up for and with the most vulnerable in our midst. They cultivate non-violent resistance to the “power over” politics of our world in order to bring about healing, justice and love.  

New scholarship on the apostle Paul has provided new angles of vision for reflection on Galatians and the fruit of the Spirit as political virtues. We will explore biblical scholar Brigitte Kahl’s brilliant reimagining of Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia (Galatians Reimagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, Fortress Press, 2010), which offers a dramatic vision for Christian imagination for us today. Kahl shows that if we put the politics of the Roman Empire in the foreground of Paul’s letter, what emerges is a dominating social and political milieu for integrating subjugated people into the Roman colonial mentality that Paul calls the “other gospel” (Gal. 1:6): the gospel of Caesar. In such a world, Paul’s stunning baptismal declaration in Gal 3:28 (“there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) was a revolutionary statement that turned the world upside down. Kahl contends that for Paul, the entire imperial model of “divide and rule” was drowned and washed away in the waters of baptism.

Using Kahl’s reimagining of Galatians and its implications for our cultivation of fruit of the Spirit, we will share with you how The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is engaging these virtues today to empower children, youth, and adults toward reconciling, healing and justice-seeking Christian living.  

We will have time for conversation as well, in which we hope to engage these questions:

  • Where do you encounter the polarizing, demonizing politics of our day?
  • What does it mean to be in, with, and for others — losing oneself in order to gain a self (a fuller self) in others?  
  • How does one “wash away” polarizing “us vs. them” mentalities so prevalent in our world?  
  • Is there another alternative to winners and losers?  Or should we develop another vocabulary? (Even “win-win” is the language of competition.)

Join us.

The Fruit of the Spirit in a Polarized World” is being offered during workshop block 3 on Tuesday of the 2017 National Gathering.


Roger Gench is senior pastor of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He has conducted spiritual retreats for lay people and clergy on spiritual disciplines (especially St. Ignatius), spiritual uses of the Bible, interfaith dialogue, politics & religion, and faith & ethics. He serves as clergy leadership of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN).

Alice Rose Tewell is associate pastor of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. Alice is an accomplished educator and facilitator of young adult ministry.

Map, Message and Mission

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Utley

The answer is contemporary worship. That’s what people want. That will bring people into the church. And, for some, it did. Until it didn’t.

The answer was mega church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer was emergent church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer is missional church. The jury is still out…

I think the answer will be the same. Mission alone won’t save God’s church.

Most of our congregants have lived through a religious anomaly. In our lifetime, most everyone belonged to a church. Folks who didn’t were looked upon with pity or suspicion. Every politician, every businessman (gender purposeful), every good mother and wife belonged to and participated in a faith community. Protestant was privileged at the time, but if you had to be Jewish or Catholic, we could understand, though we prayed for you.

This was our world. This shaped our assumptions and our understandings of who we were as church people and how we interacted with our neighbors. It’s not our world any more, thanks be to God. But, it’s no wonder we don’t quite know what to do with our declining churches.

Being a disciple of Christ had a particular focus in the first century, quite a different focus during the reformation. The in-our-face-challenge today involves being part of a people who were “trained” in one religious culture but find themselves neck deep in a different one.

We may feel like we are at the beginning of a Mission Impossible movie. “If you choose to accept this assignment,” the tape says, only we really don’t have a choice — not if we want thriving, meaningful communities of faith.

The answer will not be some kind of magic evangelism…but we are learning to ask the questions. We are better understanding our current culture and its need for God’s good news of transformation, redemption, and reconciliation.

It will take all of us in the conversation, all of us committed to exploring the issues, all of committed to “throwing spaghetti against the wall” until we discern God’s will and way in our time.

We invite you to come and throw spaghetti with us at the National Gathering.

Map, Message and Mission is offered on Monday during workshop block 1 of the 2017 National Gathering.


Beth Utley is the director of Christian formation at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in High Point, NC. She has worked in faith formation for almost 20 years. Her work with skeptical youth and young adults and her congregation’s commitment to evangelism honed her knowledge and skill. 

Toward the Purple Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dan Lewis

“It wasn’t always this way,” she said.  

I’d called to check in on her, a longtime member of our church. I wanted to see how she was doing after the presidential election. She was ok, she said, “Trusting in God.” But had I noticed, she asked, the deep sense of uncertainty around the church? Had I felt, as she had, a real reluctance to engage in conversation about these things? I had. “It wasn’t always this way,” she went on. “Not so long ago, we’d pull into that same parking lot, one car with blue bumper stickers and another with red, and it wouldn’t be a problem at all. We’d joke with each other, even around election time, poking fun. And then we’d head off to Bible study or worship together, laughing. Now we just stay quiet most of the time. And angry.”

What changed? Surely we’ve always had disagreements in the church as in the nation, different viewpoints and preferences concerning politics, theology, and such. But why is it that these differences now seem profoundly debilitating? Why are we so unable, or unwilling, to be around those with whom we disagree?

The answers to these questions are surely complex. Sociologists and historians will point to any number of factors, including increased immigration and globalization, as well as the gradual weakening of public institutions – including the church – that had once served as a kind of American cultural glue.  

But we in the church of Jesus Christ do not think of ourselves as simply another institution, do we? We are a body – a living, breathing “enfleshing” of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. He is, the scripture says, our peace, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between us. For us, the problem of division is far more than a mere frustration – it is an existential threat. We cannot not seek unity in the church of Jesus Christ and still be the one body of our Lord. Our witness demands that we push back against the division, and actively work for new unity.

Yet it must be said that there are no easy solutions. Inasmuch as the apparent unity of yesteryear was just that – apparent – it is no model for the church of today. The unity we seek cannot be achieved through the silencing of dissent and the marginalizing of minority voices – both of which were a part of the church of the 1950’s. We seek a deeper and more organic unity now, something founded on surer stuff than the sameness of days gone by.

This March, my friend Pen Peery and I will be leading a workshop at the NEXT Church National Gathering called “Toward the Purple Church.” We are both ministers serving churches striving to find a new middle way through the current divisiveness in politics and theology. We want to talk about ways to move toward the church that is less clearly red or blue in its orientation, but more purple – that is, more representative of the diversity of our great nation and church, more reflective of a coming kingdom that we know must supersede all ideologies and platforms. The key word here is toward, because we must admit we all “see in a glass, dimly” regarding these things. Pen and I simply want to share a bit of what we’ve learned in church-based research projects aimed not only at examining the various causes of our many divisions, but also exploring new unity in Christ. Will you come and join the discussion? See you in Kansas City!

Toward the Purple Church” is being offered on Tuesday during both workshop blocks 2 and 3 at the 2017 National Gathering.


Dan Lewis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia. His DMin project, “Stories to Bridge the Gap: Postliberal Preaching in a Changing University Town,” uses the theological perspective of Hans Frei, applied to preaching, to speak to a diverse and growing congregation.

Pen Peery is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His DMin project, “Identifying Suspicion as a Way to Move Forward in Hope,” challenges a large and ideologically diverse congregation to find new unity in celebrating, rather than flattening, difference.

Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Taylor Gench

I have been spending a good bit of my time of late in the company of biblical texts that raise my blood pressure—mulling over the question of what to do with problematic, offensive, downright tyrannical texts in a book we describe as “holy” and revere as “authoritative” and “normative” in some sense for Christian faith and practice. The Bible is full of such texts—texts that have proved to be “texts of terror” for women, slaves, Jews, Palestinians, Native Americans, gays (to mention but a few); instruments of oppression—and they present serious interpretive challenges for contemporary Christian faith and practice. Should they be repudiated? Discarded? Silenced? Or are there perhaps more effective and faithful ways of handling them?

It seems to me an important question for mainline Christians to consider. It is one with which I have wrestled my whole life. Early on in my relationship with the Bible, during my teenage years, I found myself tremendously insulted by what I thought at the time to be the apostle Paul’s view of women (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:8-15; Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-36). At the time, it seemed to me that the best solution to this problem was to get out the scissors and perform radical surgery on the canon. Other, less drastic strategies with much the same effect were surely available, and are more often employed by mainline Christians confronted with such texts: we can simply ignore them, or dismiss them as antiquated relics and their authors as benighted savages. But these no longer seem to me to be the most constructive ways of wrestling with tyrannical texts, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it behooves us to stay engaged with such texts, to wrestle with them publicly and be part of the conversations they evoke, rather than relinquish our opportunity—and our responsibility, I think—to make a contribution to them, for a lot of people out there are talking about such texts, rather loudly. If we dismiss them, if we are not engaging them seriously and setting forth alternative interpretations, we are not likely to be heard or to make any impact on conversations about texts that continue to circumscribe the lives of women (and others) around the globe to this day.

Moreover, one of the most helpful things about wrestling with problematic texts is that they force us to articulate clearly how we understand the nature and authority of Scripture. When we avoid such texts we deprive ourselves, and our congregations, of the opportunity to think through, and to think deeply, about our relationship with the Bible and how God is present in our engagement with it. We deprive ourselves of opportunities to grow in understanding, to mature in faith.  

In this workshop we will address the importance of engaging tyrannical texts directly and publicly, with the expectation that we may encounter the living God in conversation with them. Indeed, the most important reason to wrestle with these texts turns out to be that God is present in all our engagement with them, forming in us the mind of Jesus Christ. We will consider interpretive strategies for engaging them with integrity, and think together about how to help our congregations grapple with the nature and authority of Scripture. Leave your scissors at home!

Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Helping Congregations Wrestle with Biblical Authority” is offered on Tuesday of the 2017 National Gathering during workshop block 2. 


Frances Taylor Gench is Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and a parish associate at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Her most recent publication is Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture (WJKP, 2015).

Spacious Christianity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jenny Warner and Steven Koski

Most days, our mission statement feels like an impossible task: creating spaces of grace to cultivate hope, healing and purpose. We do that in Oregon, a part of the country that is decidedly post-Christian, non-Christian or uber-Christian, if you know what we mean. Is it possible to own the Christian story in a way that is authentic, not born out of reaction, that allows our arms, minds and souls to be open in love to the world while still embracing Jesus?

We call this way of faith Spacious Christianity.

We stumbled into Spacious Christianity because we longed for a place beyond the labels of progressive and conservative. We longed for a place that welcomes people on every place in their journey, for a place that doesn’t set parameters around who is in or out or what you can ask and what you can’t, for a place where we can unapologetically follow Jesus and most importantly, where we can be in a community that is serious about spiritual transformation. A place where there is room to grow, change and develop. A place where you can throw in your whole heart or sit around the edges while your wounds heal.

We’re in there. We’re planning services and sermons every week. We’re negotiating the needs and desires of a large diversity of parishioners and we’re doing the daily business of keeping a church up and running while trying to hold the big picture. Our church isn’t perfect but it’s real. And it’s connecting and growing. We aren’t pastoring perfectly, but we’re giving it our best. We are sharing our journey hoping it will connect with yours.

We believe we’re not alone. We think there are thousands who want to move into a more spacious place in their faith. We know there are church leaders – paid and unpaid – who long for their faith community to be a home for religious refugees. We are sharing our story and hoping you’ll find your journey reflected and taken.

In our workshop, “Spacious Christianity,” we will explore creating a culture of innovation and grace that makes space for bold experimentation. We will look at the journey a mission statement can take into theological and spiritual understanding. We hope our story will spur discussion about what others’ are discovering in their unique contexts.

Spacious Christianity: Church in the None and Done Zone of the Pacific Northwest” will be offered on Monday of the 2017 National Gathering during workshop block 1.


Jenny Warner is the Pastor for Justice, Spirituality and Community at First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon. She provides organizational structure for a church adapting to new growth in the midst of cultural change and cultivated strategic justice partnerships.

Steven Koski is Lead Pastor at First Presbyterian in Bend, Oregon. In 10 years, the church has embarked on initiatives including opening a café, a partnership in Guatemala, forging ecumenical partnerships for youth and developing a Wellness Center.

Potluck Sacrament

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jeff Bryan

What we do is not what they did.
What they did could transform who we are.

For my D.Min. final project, I focused on the history and origins of the Lord’s Supper. When it comes to this sacrament, recent scholarship has the potential to upend our theology, our practice, our everything. Frankly, Jesus and his first followers were subversive. The way they worshipped was so normal, and so radical, it threatened the entire Greco-Roman way of life. They took a cultural given — the banquet — and made it a revolution.

I’ve had questions about the Lord’s Supper for a long time. As a pastor, I’ve also had plenty of frustration. This recent, historical scholarship has answered my questions, taken away my anxiety, and changed the way I read Scripture. It’s opened up possibilities for my own subversive future.

My first call was to a big-steeple church in a Midwestern college town. I was the lowest totem on the pole: campus minister. Each Sunday night, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper at a contemplative worship service; and each Sunday night, after worship, we held a free meal for college students. I began the communion liturgy with, “This is the table of our Lord Jesus Christ.” However, the “table” was a giant wooden box separated from the congregation, who sat in rows several feet away. When I reached down to break the bread, I said, “When our Lord was at table with his disciples.” But I was the only one at the table, with the bread, by myself. When it came time for us to actually be “at table” with one another — at the free meal — we had to walk down a hall and up two flights of stairs to get there.

I’ve served two churches since, and it’s always the same. The sacrament and the meal are divorced. It’s a familiar setup, because we’ve been doing it this way for a very long time. But is this really what Christ intended for the sacrament? Where are the drunkards and prostitutes?

Let’s keep asking questions. Who should receive the sacrament? The baptized only? Open table or fenced? Intinction, trays, or something really cool that I don’t know about? Who’s going to serve on Sunday? Where do they sit? Will the servers even show up? Who’s going to buy the bread? And what about the pervasive and insidious individualization of the sacrament? For something so central to the faith, it’s an administrative quagmire. It’s enough to make a pastor scream.

There is an answer.

Following new research, my workshop, “Potluck Sacrament: Renewing an Ancient, Underused Form of Worship,” will look at ancient practice, its implications for the first four centuries, and its possibilities now. We’ll explore the Bible with new insight, and we’ll look at our ministries in new ways. We’ll find relief, and we’ll find revolution.

Potluck Sacrament is being offered on Tuesday during workshop block 2 of the 2017 National Gathering. 


Jeff Bryan is pastor of Oakland Avenue Pres, Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is a graduate of Princeton Seminary and Philadelphia Lutheran. He has served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and the Philadelphia suburbs. His D.Min studies focused on worship and sacraments.

Designing Worship with an Expansive Evangelical Impulse

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bob Henderson and Jessica Patchett

Four years ago, we invited our session to consider the possibility of launching a new, unique worship service. Five years earlier we had broadened our worship life by offering two distinct styles of worship, so the questions came rapid-fire: “Why? Aren’t the ones we have good enough? Won’t a new service simply steal people from one we already have?”

Our response was that even though our present services spanned the traditional/contemporary divide, they were still structured largely the same: a song or two of praise, a time of confession, community concerns and prayers, scripture, sermon and closing song.  

But what if we could have a service that intentionally fostered participation for the worshiper, regardless of their prior faith experience? What if we allowed prayers to be written, candles to be lighted, and feedback to the sermon to be spoken and discussed. What would happen if, each week, we offered a time for personal prayer with the minister? In other words, what if we designed a service that required no faith knowledge or training while inviting and expecting full participation?

The day we started our new service, our weekly worship attendance grew, but more importantly, the face of our congregation changed. We had long been an organ and choir robe church. Just a few years earlier we added a casual and contemporary dimension to the church. But now, we’re becoming a multi-racial, multi-faith, open-to-feeback-and-different-opinion church where seekers and searchers are taken on their own terms.

Why? Because God speaks to different people in different ways, and our families and neighborhoods are diverse – in age, political party, faith background, race, and sobriety. The people we love and care about span spectra that society says can’t be reconciled.

But we believed that if we loved all these different kinds of people, surely the Spirit of God could find a way to gather them into one congregation. That’s why we’re always inviting God to help us reform our worship. It’s why our new worship service is interactive and invitational, so that there would be space for people who aren’t just like ‘us’ to come in and shape it in a way that makes it theirs, too.

Two and a half years later, we’re so excited every time a young adult brings their parents to worship, proud to show them that they’ve found a church and a faith of their own. And, we’re equally delighted that older adults bless these same young adults with careful words of hard-won wisdom in the service’s sermon ‘talkback.’

As people live longer than ever before, we see this intergenerational cooperation and mutual blessing as a vital characteristic of the church in the 21st century and crucial for the success of any sustainable worship innovation.

We hope you’ll join us for our workshop. In the meantime, check out this invitation to our interactive service:

Designing Worship with an Expansive Evangelical Impulse” is being offered on Tuesday of the 2017 National Gathering during workshop block 3.


Bob Henderson, Senior Minister of Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte, NC, has led vibrant, growing churches for more than 25 years. He enjoys curating worship that that both remains faithful to Reformed theology and speaks to contemporary people.

Jessica Patchett, Associate Minister at Covenant Presbyterian, has served in church leadership for nearly 10 years. She enjoys helping people explore the way of Jesus and articulate their own commitments of faith.

Verse and Vision

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nancy Arbuthnot

“What do the ordinary things of daily life—water, salt, feet, clothes—have to do with spiritual existence?” This question came unbidden to me one day a few years ago while I was at a writers’ retreat in rural Virginia. I had just completed my poetry translation project, days ahead of schedule (no doubt helped by the hearty, delicious meals prepared for us each breakfast, lunch and dinner time; cozy writing studios nestled into the rolling hills; enforced quiet zones in the residence hall; and the lack of internet and cell phone coverage), and with no other writing projects in mind, I picked up my Bible, propped my feet in the doorway of the cabin, chose a random phrase and gazed out over the bucolic countryside.

So began the meditative poems collected in my book, Spirit Hovering, and my quest to share my spiritual explorations. Over the years, I have led many “Writing the Spirit” workshops with church groups and the homeless and other vulnerable populations. Recently, Gerry Hendershot, another poetry lover and spiritual seeker, teamed up with me to create “Verse and Vision,” an online and real-time program promoting creative uses of poetry in church life. We have posted our first online blogs and presented poetry workshops at our DC-area presbytery meetings and in our churches. In our NEXT Church workshop, we hope to spread the word about ways poetry can stir our spirits and connect us to our spiritual source!

Our workshop focus is two-fold: to read and discuss poems to use in liturgy and spiritual formation, and to write our own poetic meditations based on scripture. Gerry will share resources for using poetry in difficult discussions of life changes (death, divorce) and social justice issues (white privilege, gender identity). He will also introduce choral-speaking of poetry in worship. I will share poems from Spirit Hovering as examples of how to meditate on scripture with a pen. I will leave you with a short poem from my book, inspired by John 6:35: “I am the bread of life”:

Bread

Bread breathing through a thousand
small holes—

bread his father baked
mixing yeast, sugar, flour, water
letting the dough rise
punching it down
the sweet moist aroma
filling the apartment

May I have some? the boy asked
and his father slicing
the still-warm loaf
placed a piece in his hands

What was wanted, asked for
What was asked for, given

Verse and Vision will be offered during workshop block 1 on Monday of the National Gathering.


Nancy Arbuthnot, a teaching elder at Western Presbyterian Church in DC, is professor emerita of English at the United States Naval Academy. In addition to Spirit Hovering, her publications include the English versions of Vietnamese poems in Waves Beyond Waves by Le Pham Le and a chapbook of poems about growing up in a navy family.

gerry hendershot After Gerry Hendershot retired from a career in health research, he was led by the Spirit into poetry, learning from craft shops, listening to great poets read at festivals, and spending too much on poetry books. Along the way he began sharing his love of poetry in his faith community—the Church of the Pilgrims in DC, where he is a ruling elder.

Nancy and Gerry’s website is www.verseandvision.org.

Breaking the Binary

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Colleen Toole

It was early in the morning and impossibly cold as a handful of us gathered for what would end up being the last of our monthly sunrise services for that year—held on the last Sunday of every month until it got too cold. To be honest, I was less focused on the service and experiencing God in the awakening of the world around me, and more focused on the fact that I could see my breath in front of me and feel the cold metal chair underneath me. That is, until I heard the pastor address the community by saying, “sisters, brothers, and…”

With that “and,” my heart skipped a beat. Not too long before, I had sat in this pastor’s office, working to find the words to tell her that I did not identify as a woman or as a man, but was embracing a non-binary gender identity. Here, in the cold early morning, I experienced for the first time what it felt like to be seen and embraced by the church, as this pastor acknowledged that there were those of us for whom “sister” or “brother” didn’t fit. For years, churches had (usually out of simple ignorance) shut me out in the language they used, how their programs were structured, or even the design of their buildings. While I knew that I was created in the image of God, I had no idea how much tension I was holding about my place in the church until that tension melted away with the simple word: “and.” With that anxiety gone, I began to realize that my experience of gender might teach us all something about God. Out of that moment came conversation and deeper understandings and more exploration of this mystery that is the God we worship.

Particularly since the passing of HB2, North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, I’ve been working to help equip churches to fully embrace trans and gender non-conforming people in their worship, service, and community. While many churches have done a lot of work on what it means to welcome people of all sexualities, welcoming people of all gender identities requires a different set of questions and tools. In this workshop, “Breaking the Binary,” I hope to help attendees see some of the issues trans and gender non-conforming people face when we step into churches, and learn ways to break down the walls that keep us from connecting with each other. But even beyond that, I want to explore what can happen when we do connect, and what kind of transformation can come out of that connection.  

Imagine: who are we leaving out? What conversations are we missing out on? How might we grow in our knowledge and love of God by opening the door a little wider, with a simple “and?”

Breaking the Binary is being offered during workshop block 1 on Monday of the National Gathering.


Colleen Toole (they/them/theirs) is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Their ministry focuses on connecting LGBTQ+ youth in online Christian community & creating resources for churches seeking to welcome people of all gender identities.

A Rule for Church Leaders

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andy Kort

One day I had a realization that maybe I should tinker with my congregation’s session meetings. If the church is supposed to be a living, breathing, and vital place, then why should the meeting of her leaders be so boring, dry, and dusty? Why, after a short and often perfunctory prayer, should the meeting of church leadership focus primarily on committee reports, rubber stamps, budgets, and policies, and not things of the Spirit? I’m not saying the Spirit is not alive and at work in these things, but sometimes it is not so obvious. Since the elders are spiritual leaders of the church, perhaps we should be living into that calling more than we already are. Our problem was that we were acting a lot like a corporate board room.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-9-01-49-amI know that in my own life I was feeling dry and parched. I was thirsty and needed to go deeper in my spiritual life and drink from the well in order to find refreshment — not to mention joy, hope, and a reminder why I went to seminary in the first place.

Thankfully, as a part of my continuing education, I enrolled in a class titled “Theology of Church and Ministry.” My final project was to design a “rule” for my personal spiritual use. However, following the rule and sticking to it were far more challenging than I had originally thought. In some areas I flourished, while in other areas I floundered and became frustrated. Nevertheless, the rule helped me come to grips with a hard truth: I was struggling in my own spiritual life. And I am an ordained minister. The transition from worshiper in the pew to preacher in the pulpit does not necessarily lend itself to an abundance of spiritual practices or being able to, as Thomas a Kempis might suggest, imitate Christ. At least that has been my experience.

Like many other clergy I know, I have felt my own life of faith is often neglected to my own detriment. Therefore, I had been seeking a more balanced way to structure, or order, my life to allow me to grow and increase my spiritual life. In other words, I had been searching for a way to increase, or at the very least solidify, my “holy living.” A rule seemed the perfect opportunity to help me in this struggle.

As I engaged in my rule for the class project, I had another thought: as a minister, if I needed help in this regard, what about the leaders of the church? Could a rule not only help their own spiritual lives, but could it also shape the work and ministry of a governing board at a local congregation? I thought that it could.

So I instituted a rule for the session. Three years later, it has been transformative and shaped our meetings, and our life together, in ways that I did not anticipate. I am really looking forward to sharing more about this with you in Kansas City!

A Rule for Church Leaders is being offered during workshop block 2 on Tuesday of the National Gathering. 


kort-picAndy Kort is the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana. He developed a rule for his session a few years ago. He contributed a chapter about this experience in the book, “Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy.”