Ministry at the Meeting of Trauma and God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Remington Johnson

Folks like to ask me about my call. What did it feel like? How did I know?

I struggle to answer and blush a bit to give as honest and succinct an answer as I know how: I went to seminary because I thought I was called to be a really fantastic preaching pastor helping to motivate, shape and encourage large swaths of people. I got to seminary and had a mostly unpleasant time. Everything felt too slow, too pedantic and too flat.

It mostly wasn’t the professors’ faults. Rather, it was that my calling wasn’t to be found in parish ministry. The education was focused on the good and worthy work of preparing me to serve a church and despite these meaningful aims, I struggled. I was bored.

During a January class session, I found myself interning as a chaplain in a local hospital and had that deep feeling — where you know you are supposed to be right where you are and nowhere else — more often than I had ever felt before.

So, I changed my focus and chased down a chaplain residency. After seminary I had the luck and blessing of landing a job starting a top tier cardiac hospital’s very first chaplain program.

At that phenomenal hospital, my place in ministry is to show up at some of the very worst and most poignant events of a person’s life. It is in these moments of crisis and suffering that my call finds its roots. There in those heavy places, I help to create a safe space for folks to feel loved, for them to be reminded of hopes, of lives well lived, of dreams yet met, and perhaps most importantly, a space for them to wrestle and wander with the pain of the experience as they seek to make sense and find the right path forward.

Hospital stays are some of the very hardest places to process health events and seismic life changes. The processing and meaning making that takes place begins at the bedside in the hospital and it extends far beyond the discharge. Walking with people while they process a major life event offers the church a place to ground itself in the life of its peoples and to find fertile ground for shared sacred experiences.

There is an iteration of the Post Traumatic Model of Growth that highlights the vital role of the church body in the recovery and healing process. In this model, the church is where space is created for folks to question the deep existential concerns that a trauma can stir up and it is in this safe place of pot lucks, Gospel readings, and parking lot conversations that folks are given the opportunity to begin to heal from their experience.

The intersection of my work with parish ministry sits right in the midst of that painful and confusing time after a seismic event. I cannot follow my patients and their families’ home. I have faith that their churches and their people will continue the good and heavy work of holding them, listening to them, and cautiously awaiting the long slow work of healing. Just as I stand as the one of the church’s emissaries of love in the midst of very heavy times, the church body continues that work long after a family has left the hospital.

My service as a hospital chaplain has been and continues to be a remarkable source of joy and meaning. I get to share this joy with those I care for and with. When I guest preach, I can bring this joy and meaning back to the congregations.

In a way, those I care for helped save my soul: they showed me who I was and where I needed to be. Their stories of God’s hand in their lives reminded me of God’s love for me and all peoples.

This work is wondrously mutual.


Remington Johnson is the manager of Chaplain Services at a leading cardiac hospital. Along with her service as a medical chaplain, she serves as the chair of the ethics committee and assists families in navigating difficult decisions. She also tends to the growing palliative care program. Outside of the hospital, Remington raises a young son, imagines a delightful future with her girlfriend and builds beautiful things out of wood. Most every day at 5pm you can find her sweating out her feelings at one of those gyms where they lift heavy things and run around to feel alive.

Pastorpreneur: The Business of Serving God’s People

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Adam Walker Cleaveland

“Hi, my name is Adam, and I’m an entrepreneur.”

What?

When I was in seminary ten years ago, if you had told me I would graduate, serve three churches, and then start a business creating resources for children’s ministry… I would never have believed you.

First, I really didn’t care for children’s ministry (shhh, don’t tell anyone).

Second, I had read a lot of business and leadership books while in ministry and during my time in seminary, but it always felt like I should have been reading them with those old brown paper bag book covers like you used to make in elementary school for your textbooks. Sure, you could glean some interesting analogies and ideas from those books for ministry, but they were business books, and ministry and business needed to be kept far away from each other. I was, after all, pursuing the higher calling – being a pastor.

Oh, the naiveté of a first-year seminarian.

Photo from Illustrated Children’s Ministry

And yet, here I am. Ten years out of seminary and I’m a businessman (although, when I was just starting out and living the life of a ‘solopreneur,’ I could understand why Jay-Z might have felt like he himself was the business, man, and not just a businessman).

My journey here was not a quick or easy one. It was filled with successes, joys, and a lot of fulfillment serving churches in parish ministry. It was also filled with loss, depression, conflict, and moments of utter frustration with my calls. Parish ministry can be life-giving, but it can also suck the life out of you. It can make you question your call and your faith, and one can grow increasingly cynical about ministry.

Through a series of events over a two-year period, I eventually found myself imagining what it would look like to start a business offering illustrated faith resources to churches and families. The fact that there was an adult coloring craze occurring at the same time that I launched Illustrated Children’s Ministry (ICM) was also quite helpful.

Once the business began to take off and I started writing and talking more about the work we were doing, I found myself oddly avoiding some words related to the business. I became aware that I used certain words instead of more business-y-sounding words. I wouldn’t talk about our “products” but I would share extensively about our “resources.” We didn’t have “customers” – we had a “community.” ICM was a ministry – not a business.

For someone who spent a lot of time reminding parishioners that they could live out their callings as doctors, teachers, and businesspeople, I sure was having a hard time acknowledging that it wasn’t a bad thing that I was now an entrepreneur running a successful business. Why did I feel the need to avoid words like “products” when that is exactly what we sell at ICM? It’s like all those conversations in seminary about the church not being a business made me think that there was something wrong with being a business, or a businessperson.

And clearly, there isn’t anything wrong with it.

In fact, now that I am an entrepreneur and running my own small business, I feel like I’m doing more ministry and having a greater impact in the world by using my gifts in this way. One of the products that ICM sells is large coloring posters. For this past Advent, we had over one thousand churches from all over the world using our posters and creating opportunities for their communities to gather intergenerationally. We are currently selling stations of the cross coloring posters, and we’ve surpassed our numbers from Advent. I’m guessing that we’ll have close to 1,500 churches, schools, campus ministries, and retirement communities around the world coloring our posters.

Whether by choice or by necessity, I imagine that more and more pastors are going to start thinking about alternative ways that they can support themselves and their families, and starting a business is a great option. Fizzle is an online community for independent entrepreneurs who are working hard to earn a living doing something they love. I found this community when I started ICM and it’s been an incredible place of information and support. The crew at Fizzle says that the most successful businesses come together when you find a problem that people have in the world, you get to know those people, and care about them enough to be able to offer them a solution to that problem.

Gosh, I feel like I’ve heard something like that before.

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
-Frederick Buechner


Adam Walker Cleaveland is the founder of Illustrated Children’s Ministry, LLC, a business that creates illustrated faith resources for the church and the home. He lives in Chicago with his wife (a pastor), their 5-yr old son and 6-week old daughter. Find out more about Illustrated Children’s Ministry at their website: illustratedchildrensministry.com.

Serving Our Creative God in Creative Ministry and Ecofeminist Theology

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Abby Mohaupt

I knew I was going to seminary by the time I was 14.

Actually, by then I knew I was going to McCormick Theological Seminary to get an MDiv and then be a pastor in a church where I would preach about how Jesus is pretty cool and God loves everyone.

I thought I would say prayers over bread and juice and I would baptize babies.

I did enroll at McCormick when I was 22 years old, but between my middle school self and my post-college self, I fell in love with creation. I realized I was better at listening to God when I was hiking in the prairie than anywhere else. I studied religion and sociology as an undergraduate and my white, able-bodied, educated, middle class self learned to unpack categories of difference and systematic oppression on the streets and in a shelter of Chicago.

When I met with my presbytery, I knew I was really called to do environmental ministry and antiracism work. I could tell you about my ordination process—how I often forgot to talk about how much I love Jesus until I started talking about how he’s like Captain Planet or how I felt a lot of joy in taking the ordination exams or even how my first call let me explore ministry in really prophetic ways.

But my ministry has never been traditional.

My first call was in a wonderful congregation that let me spend 10 hours a week at a non-profit that works with farmworkers. When those 10 hours stretched into 15 and 20 hours a week, I knew that my heart was not fairly in the work of the congregation. God was calling me to be immersed in the work of a rural northern California community seeking to build bridges between farmworkers and the people who eat food every day. I fell in love with the children I worked with, who taught me to sing boldly and to carry stickers and chocolate with me at all times. I grew from meeting with congregations who sought to build relationships with the rural community, and I learned to be fierce in asking congregations to pray and to give their time and to share their financial resources.  My heart grew three sizes from working long days with colleagues who made me laugh and who wondered if my two graduate degrees in environmental theology really qualified me to sort through the donations of crayons and toiletries we so regularly received.

I gave thanks over juice boxes and granola bars and held children’s hands as we explored the scientific properties of water.

About a year into that second call, I realized that I was being called away. My love for studying and reading and teaching was an indication that I might be called to a PhD program. I looked for programs in ecology and theology and applied to four schools. In one week I visited three of the schools and knew by then I would be moving across the country to the east coast to learn to be a professor/clergy/activist.

It mattered to me just how I’d tell my beloved community I was leaving, and I eventually chose my program at Drew University based on conversations with some of the farmworkers and locals.  

This is a third call—a call in which I spend my days auditing extra classes and learning to be a better organizer and antiracist ally, in which I write papers about political and ecofeminist theologies and climate trauma and in which my heart swells with the four-month-old friendships of my peers. This is where I talk about how much I love Jesus for his solidarity with the poor, and how I see God’s heart breaking by the state of creation in climate change. I don’t preach anymore, unless you count the freelance writing and multi-media art I do, grappling with the sacred texts of the Bible.

There’s an arboretum here, and I run through it, listening to God and seeking joy, grateful for work my 14-year-old self would never recognize but for which she deeply longed.


abby mohaupt is a PhD student at Drew University in the Religion and Society Program. She’s the moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA, co-editor of Presbyterians for Earth Care’s EARTH newsletter, and a member of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s activist council. When abby’s not reading or running, she’s often drawing with crayons and seeking joy. she splits her time between CA, IL, and NJ.

Bearing Christian Witness in an Interfaith World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Joseph Lemuel Morrow

Religion is often mentioned among the subjects one should not discuss in public. My current ministry with colleges and universities involves getting people to do just the opposite. In the everyday world, our religious and philosophical world views remain largely invisible. Many times this is intentional, in order to avoid the appearance of disrespecting others. However, our beliefs themselves continue to exert their influence on us and our common life in barely perceptible but very powerful ways.

Sometimes, the work of a pastor outside the parish feels the same way.

Photo by Interfaith Youth Core

I work for the national not-for-profit organization Interfaith Youth Core. It’s not Christian, but interfaith. It’s not religious, but civic. We focus primarily within higher education. At first glance, our mission may appear rather incongruent with my pastoral identity. After all, many see a pastor as someone whose primary duty is the care or healing of souls. In my case,  because not everyone in our organization and our field shares my faith perspective or even desires to, my pastoral disposition gets rerouted and channeled in different directions.

But if you think about, that is no different than what life is like for the majority of US Christians, and many others around the globe, who live and work in communities or institutions where their particular faith is not shared. In most cases, their Christian faith is not the core value driving local institutions. Yet, while outside the parish our Christian identities are lie beneath the surface, the questions driving contemporary Christian life are front and center.

Us Christians are called into a multi-religious society, and that raises the question: How do Christians live justly and virtuously with their diverse neighbors? Christian identity can’t be discarded as easily as the adhesive name tags we use in worship, and so we ask: How can we be the Church not just huddled in our worship, but on college campuses, our workplaces, and the halls of political power?

I believe my work at Interfaith Youth Core is about wrestling with those key questions, and has become even more salient in our perilous political and social moment. It is about learning to bear Christian witness in the diaspora of public life, where we must be honestly ourselves and decisively for our neighbor.

I wear many hats in pursuit of those questions. Sometimes I serve as a chaplain to chaplains, because interfaith efforts tend be driven by religious life staff, who are predominantly Christian. Other times, I share in the interpretive work of colleges and universities who need to develop strategies of approaching religious diversity that are grounded in Christian traditions. Often I find myself networking and cultivating relationships between Christians who want to build community across religious difference, but believe acting in partnership is more fruitful that working in isolation.  

I’m comfortable in this role because I feel I’m attending to an oft neglected dimension of our ministry and witness. I sit in a line of forebears for whom how Christians act in public is a big concern. My great grandfather, Rev. Dr. Frank Williams, was a segregation-era Presbyterian pastor in Alabama who bridged ministry with work in construction and real estate. He eventually saw that through his economic activity he was modeling his religious and social ideals: better labor relations, equitable and affordable housing, civil rights for all citizens.

My ministry at Interfaith Youth Core draws on that tradition. I model bridge-building in a time of political division and social segregation. As a Presbyterian teaching elder, my presence among co-workers and higher education colleagues demonstrates that the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Church broadly speaking, desires to accompany people in their public struggles to be better neighbors. And as someone working in a non-profit, my ministry offers insights into social entrepreneurship and prepares the church to be present in society in adaptive ways that will bear a strong and sustainable witness.

When Christians gather in the parish, we do so in sanctuaries built to reflect awe and wonder that characterize God. Liturgists and preachers remind us of our faith story. Hospitality and holiness are on display in both the broken bread of Eucharist and the coffee or tea served after worship. In a similar way, when Christians step out of the parish and into the public sphere, we need structures, relationships, and occasions that guide and comfort us in our pilgrim journey.  Ministries, such as the one I serve, through an interfaith non-profit, provide tabernacles to guide our way.


Joseph L. Morrow is a teaching elder of the PC(USA) working as Campus Engagement Manager for Interfaith Youth Core. He is a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee. Joe lives in Chicago with his wife Sung Yeon and daughter Ella, where they worship with Edgewater Presbyterian Church.

Confessions of a Free-Range Pastor

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

This month I enter my third year as a pastor without a congregation.

For my first twelve years of ministry, I served two congregations, following one of the traditional paths of a seminary graduate: associate at a medium-sized church, then a solo pastorate. It was a joy, a challenge, a growth experience, and a chapter I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

The “typical” next step is to become a head of staff somewhere, right? I certainly thought about it. But sometime during those twelve years, a new element got introduced into my ministry that led my path to diverge from what’s typical. I will never know what the decisive element was. Maybe it was when I got asked to write a monthly Bible column, or keynote a conference. Maybe it was the book. Of course, lots of parish pastors write and lead conferences as an adjunct to serving a congregation. But somewhere along the way, those activities became not an add-on to my ministry, but the heart of my ministry. So two years ago this month, I left the solo position at the lovely small church, and struck out on my own as a writer, speaker, and conference leader. Now I write books and articles, I do a little freelance writing for non-profits, and I speak to some eighteen to twenty-four groups a year.

As I pause and take stock of that decision, I think about what has been gained and lost in terms of my pastoral identity.

What I’ve gained:

Freedom. I never fully glimpsed how much pastors sacrificed until I was no longer doing it. Evenings, weekends, even vacations can be compromised by the needs of the congregation. It’s a call that most of us find to be worth the sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice nonetheless.

Our family hasn’t settled on a church home yet—we’re taking our time. In the midst of our exploring, I can now run an occasional race on Sunday morning without taking a vacation day, or attend the 24-hour Best Picture marathon with my mother, which we’ll do in a few weeks. (Nine movies shown back to back. It’s a bleary-eyed blast.) I also have freedom to attend and lead worship in a variety of settings. I recently preached and presided at table in a Lutheran congregation; breaking bread at another denomination’s table will put you in touch very quickly with what you take for granted in the Eucharist!

Appreciation. With that freedom comes great appreciation for the work of local church pastors. As a writer, I hope my work reaches as wide an audience as possible. At the same time, over these last two years I have come to see my vocation more as that of supporting church leaders. When I preach or lead an event in a congregation, I’m not just sharing what I’m passionate about. I’m serving as a “relief preacher” for church professionals who may be feeling tired or stuck, or who may just need a fresh arm to take over for a while. I pray for my colleagues and check in with them more than I did when I was in the trenches myself.

A new “parish.” Pastors like to joke about the fibs we tell when people ask us on airplanes, “So what do you do?” As an introvert, and one whose job it was to provide spiritual counsel for so many years, I often demurred on such questions, rationalizing, “I gave at the office.” I no longer shy from claiming my identity, though our Presbyterian terminology trips me up. “Pastors” are tied to congregations, and I am not; “teaching elder” is meaningless to people outside the PC(USA) as well as many people inside it. I’ve gone with “minister” or “pastor” because it’s understandable to most people.

I love my quirky unofficial parish. I’ve been called upon to pastor people in a whole range of settings: walking the kids home from school with a gaggle of parents, via Facebook message, and even while running—trying to explain the Reformation while running a hilly eleven-miler was a special challenge.  

A highlight in this new free-range ministry was leading a service of dedication of a memorial bench for a friend whose baby died after three days of life. I was called upon to acknowledge the mother’s Christian identity while also being expansive in my language to welcome the wide variety of faith traditions of the people present. It’s a muscle we all must exercise from time to time in the church, but one we’d do well to strengthen as our culture becomes more and more diverse.  

I rejoice at all of these gains!

What I’ve lost:

Income. Free-range ministry is a constant hustle, and I’ve taken a pay cut moving to a “fee for service” model (to say nothing of the lack of benefits and pension). I am constantly trying to balance asking for honoraria that I feel I am worth, while understanding that most congregations aren’t exactly flush with cash.  

I also have to name that I can do the work I do because our household expenses are not wholly dependent on steady income from me. I have a spouse whose vocation is one that our culture happens to compensate well. Facebook memories just reminded me of this article, “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. I wrote at the time how I cringed when people said how “brave” I was to strike out on my own. I am in a privileged position, and I never want to sugar-coat that.  

As NEXT Church considers transformation in the church, including alternate forms of ministry, we must always keep this economic piece at the forefront. How can we support people doing good work for the church whose spouses don’t work in computer security, for example? Or who don’t have a spouse?

Focus. With the flexibility of my new vocation comes a major need for focus. This need plays out in many ways, from deciding which articles I write to what kind of speaking engagements to take. Writers don’t make much money from books—the income mainly comes from speaking. Yet books are the engines that fuel the speaking opportunities. So it’s a balance.

Further, as we settle into a new presidency, many of us have come face-to-face with the reality that democracy is an active enterprise. We must all do our part to make our values and aspirations known, so that our government may reflect those values and aspirations. I could spend all day, every day on activism if I let myself. I miss having a regular community to provide structure to my work in the world. A church is a ready-made place for such accountability and focus. In lieu of that, I’ve shepherded the formation of some groups that provide a place for support and common action for the greater good. It’s interesting to do so as a pastor. Our gatherings aren’t explicitly religious, nor do we want them to be. But there’s a general sense of something deeper undergirding our work—even if I’m the only one perceiving things on that level.

Patience. At the same time, the moments when I do dip back into church work I find I have less tolerance for much of the nitty-gritty that consumes the time of a average pastor. Every institution has its necessary maintenance tasks—there’s no denying that—but we spend an awful lot of time on items that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about.  

After twelve years of ministry, I was thoroughly sold on why the church matters. I remain sold, but I understand much better why many people see little need for it. It’s not just the endless committees or the busyness. It’s not even the judgmentalism and hate that seem to dominate the headlines. It’s also the fact that community, and the opportunity to give back in meaningful ways, can be found in so many different places now.

I don’t know how long this chapter of my life will last. Like the aspiring improviser that I am, I’m taking things one step at a time, without needing to know what’s coming down the road.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a teaching elder in the PC(USA) whose ministry consists of writing, speaking, and freelance writing/consulting with non-profit organizations on their social media needs. She is a member of the NEXT Church strategy team. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

More Than Valid: A Ministry of Word and Story

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Laura Cheifetz

I’m grateful beyond words to colleagues who are called to parish ministry; for their ministry to me and my family, for the places they show up. And I’m grateful I’m not one of them.

Beauty in art, nature, and human interaction makes my heart sing. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, with parents who made sure we went hiking, went to the theatre, and visited museums, it was easy to sense the holy all around me. But now that I live in a landscape foreign to my spirituality, I feel the vitality of God’s call is with other people. I will turn to the stories of people, to their yearnings, real needs, and lofty dreams, before I turn to strict rules or orthodoxy. My own reading of Scripture, my relationship with God, both hang on how people flourish. Or don’t. That is my call.

Photo credit: Presbyterian Outlook

I have been gifted with opportunities to serve the church – in theological education, young adult leadership formation, governance, advocacy, and publishing. Like parish pastors, I’m never bored. I have long felt called to live ministry in the world in ways that make sense, rather than wedging myself into a position that is the wrong fit. I can be up front, but I’m also skilled in working as part of a team. I am good at operating within big systems, interacting with lots of different people. I flourish in ecumenical work, which is so Presbyterian. I enjoy leading worship, but I have more fun facilitating conversations, writing blog posts, working behind the scenes to make something happen. I have the freedom to speak my faith convictions within the bounds set by my supervisor very differently than if I were in a parish setting.  

What does my ministry offer to the church? I give to you, the church, the ministries of speaking out, getting stuff done so the church has an event to attend/resources to access/a service for worship, making connections between people and communities, all in the body of a queer Asian American woman. I am a specific ministry by my representation as much as by my actions. I get to show people that their specific bodies can also be in ministry.  

Now, working in religious publishing, I am in what is referred to in my judicatory as a “validated ministry.” Working to publish books, interacting with others on behalf of the press, going out to hear what the church is discussing at the moment, collaborating with other religious bodies to make something happen, that is validated. We Presbyterians are an educated bunch. The books published by my workplace have been formational for religious leaders from many different traditions. But ultimately what validates this ministry for me is that books tell the stories of what makes us human and our relationship with the divine. I have on my desk a stack of academic tomes, thoughtful general reader books on Christian living, and bible studies, all reflecting the vitality of our faith. Being human is beautiful; after all, God created us this way. But to be a human who reads and writes is to share who we are and whose we are through the power of the written word. This is ministry.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Vice President of Church & Public Relations and editor of “These Days” at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She has served with the Forum for Theological Exploration and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She grew up a double pastors’ kid in the Pacific Northwest and holds an MBA from North Park University and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary. For fun, she watches television, reads fiction, delves into post-colonial feminism and critical race theory, and rages against the system of which, she is clear, she is a part. 

Finding My Call on Campus, Finding My Faith in Interfaith

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box’? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Laura Brekke

My full title is Director of Religious Diversity.

It’s an interesting title as it doesn’t explicitly name me as a minister.

My job itself operates into two spheres – on the one hand, I am the campus minister for our Protestant Christian students. I have a Christian diversity intern, and lead a weekly Bible study. I advise three Protestant groups, I offer special Protestant worship opportunities. On the other hand, I am also chaplain to all religious and spiritual communities beyond the Christian umbrella. I am the chaplain for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, those who identify as spiritual but not religious, and so on. I lead bi-weekly interfaith dinner discussions that offer opportunities to engage in conversations from race and religion to religion and pop culture with peers from different religious and spiritual traditions. I support diverse holy day celebrations, advise the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on topics specific to religious diversity.

My parish extends to more than five thousand students; Catholic, Protestant and of many religious traditions. My preaching is less often behind a pulpit and more often in the form of a lecture. I lead groups through workshops on intersectional identity engagement and recognizing religious bias. And with one of my professor colleagues, I co-lead the Inter-Belief Floor – a floor in one of our residence halls focused on interfaith engagement. Not exactly skills on the average seminary checklist.

I served a traditional church before I became a campus minister. I loved my year as stated supply to a tiny church in rural Alabama, but my heart has been for college students. I grew up in a non-religious family. My faith in Jesus came to fruition in college – because of a patient and welcoming campus minister, Rev. Dr. Diane Mowrey at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. I was given space to ask questions and grow in fits and starts on my faith journey. I take those memories of encouragement into my ministry at Santa Clara University.

My biggest challenge is ministering to students of other religious traditions. We don’t have a campus rabbi, imam, or holy leader from non-Christian traditions. And yet for me, being a chaplain outside of my comfort zone has rooted me deeper in the grace and compassion of Jesus Christ. How do we preach the gospel always, yet use words only when necessary? How do we show the love of God to someone who has rejected religion? Where do we encourage questions as young people grow into their identities beyond the safe embrace of their family? These weren’t the questions I was taught to answer in seminary – but these are the questions which have given my ministry meaning and great joy.

Now, in the wake of executive orders which seek to ban my students and colleagues from residence in my country, these questions of compassion, of reaching beyond the tradition that roots me, are even more important. When people say Jesus wasn’t a refugee and refuse to imagine an entire religious group as a complex collection of real humans with real hopes and fears, I find my job as the director of religious diversity even more important. Diversity often means division, but it doesn’t have to. Diversity can mean unity without uniformity.

My greatest joy as a university chaplain is that I am surrounded by people who make me think hard on what and why my faith matters. They aren’t shy in their questions about Jesus and his miracles, or how I read and interpret scripture. I miss preaching weekly, but I get the joy of leading a Bible study with seven college students who are excited to be there each week. I don’t get to preside at communion regularly, but I do get to help plan the annual Passover seder with the Jewish Student Union – and learn a lot in the process. I don’t get to take part in youth service trips, but I do get to see my evangelical student group organize and run a weekly worship night with more skill than some new pastors!

Ministry beyond the church walls is challenging – it’s full of unforeseen pitfalls, and unexpected graces. There’s endless paperwork and program assessment, to be sure. But there are colleagues who ask tough questions. There are students who bring their whole selves to their worship. And there is the wonder of the way God is working through each crack and cranny of the human heart.


Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied history and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Masters of Divinity form Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Ministry: I Think We Need a Bigger Box

by Layton Williams

Back in the ’90s, there was a Taco Bell commercial in which their chihuahua mascot is trying to trap Godzilla into a box with a tasty taco as bait. “Here lizard, lizard, lizard,” the chihuahua calls. And then, when the monstrous Godzilla comes into view, dwarfing both dog and trap, the dog says, “Uh oh, I think I need a bigger box.”

When it comes to our understanding of what ministry can be: I think we need a bigger box.

When I was five years old, I intended to be a waitress who also owned the restaurant where I worked and would live above it. I was going to be a writer in my spare time, and a pastor on Sundays.  This early dream reveals several significant facts about me:

  1. I have always seen ministry (and writing) as part of my future.
  2. I have always dreamed in expansive and unexpected ways.
  3. I grew up thinking ministry only happens in churches and on Sundays.

I can’t really blame myself for this last one. We all carry around a certain image of “pastor.” Too often male, collared or wearing a big, billowing robe and stole, who smiles warmly at you on Sunday mornings and climbs up into the pulpit to preach a good word.

Credit: Sojouners (JP Keenan)

Of course, anyone who really gets involved in a church ought to know that church ministry is far more than a Sunday morning job, and church pastors do far more than smile and shake hands and preach. It’s important to recognize that parish ministry is much more than that. It’s equally important to realize that ministry is much more than just the parish, and that is a lesson I think the church is still learning.

When I was in seminary, I used to say that I thought I was called to something I couldn’t yet imagine. Over my three years in school, I imagined my ministry in a hundred different ways, ranging from starting a coffee shop to getting a PhD to advocacy work. Still, at the encouragement of others, I took a position in a parish setting upon graduation. During my two years in that church ministry, I learned a great deal about both the beauty and challenges of parish work. I came to love both the people I worked with and the people I served. I was ordained to that position, and committed myself to a life of ministry in service to God and God’s people.

But when my time at that church drew to a close last summer, I knew with greater certainty than ever that I was called to a different kind of work. I was feeling more and more pulled to the intersection of religion and politics. I was spending a great deal of my time writing about issues of justice and faith. I still couldn’t quite imagine what my future should look like, but I was determined to trust God and take a leap.

Last fall I moved to Washington D.C. with a little bit of savings, a lot of hope, and no job. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be in a church. Friends and strangers alike balked at this decision to not even consider the parish, and I often worried that I was betraying the ordination promises I had so recently made.

Then, when my savings and hope had all but run out, I was offered a job by Sojourners, a Christian social justice magazine, website, and advocacy organization. I had written for them before and joining their staff felt like achieving a dream I didn’t know I had. I became their Audience Engagement Associate — essentially a Sojourners evangelist — and was thrust into the complex world of being both pastor and journalist.

It has been a whirlwind ever since. In truth, I often still fear what others think of my choice and whether I have failed to uphold my commitment to my ordination. And yet, I feel more fulfilled and more called to my work than I even thought possible. I am exploring God at work in this world through people and writing and faith and politics and it is, absolutely, a ministry I could not have imagined before and now could not imagine my life without.

I have always known that God is at work everywhere in this world in beautiful and unexpected ways, and now I know that sometimes She calls us to be at work in beautiful and unexpected ways too.

As a church, we need to cultivate and embrace a broader understanding of what ministry can be, and then ask how we can best support those engaged in these nontraditional vocations. Too often, even when we support such ministries, we can treat them like add-ons or somehow less valid ways of serving than the parish role.

The blog series that NEXT Church will publish this month is full of diverse stories of committed ministers serving God in a multitude of beautiful and unexpected ways. There are chaplains and PhD students, and entrepreneurs and publishers. Reading these stories has stretched and inspired me, and made me excited for the church and the future of ministry. I hope these stories stretch and inspire you as well.

As for me, it turns out I am a writer and a minister, still known to occasionally preach on Sundays. So maybe my five year old self had something figured out with all that expansive dreaming. Maybe ministry does need a bigger box, or maybe when it comes to how God calls us, we don’t need a box at all.


Layton E. Williams is an ordained PCUSA teaching elder currently serving as the Audience Engagement Associate for Sojourners in Washington D.C.. Her work combines data analysis, creative communications, new media strategy, and relationship building to grow the Sojourners community in both breadth and depth. She is also a writer, focusing on intersections of faith, justice, politics, and culture with an emphasis on sexuality and gender. She previously served as Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and received her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Building Community Across Divides: A Book List

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In November, Don Meeks and Jeff Krehbiel curated “Can We Talk?”, a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience. Can we bridge the theological differences that divide us? Can we even talk about them? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

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We asked our contributing authors this month to tell us what they are reading or have read that has helped them in the work of building community across divides. Here’s what they said:

Jodi Craiglow

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch
“I recommend this book probably five times as often as I recommend all other books — combined. Crouch’s main argument is simple but profound: We can’t change culture by critiquing it. We can only change culture by creating
more of it.”

Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf
“Easily (and simultaneously) the most beautiful and the most challenging book I’ve ever read. Volf argues that we can only truly experience reconciliation when we embrace “the other,” bringing them into our lives in the same way that we’ve been embraced by God.”

Roy Howard

Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry Hurtado
“This is a clearly written book of Christian history that has implications for the church of our time under a different empire and seeking a distinctive identity as Christians that will resist the idolatries of the culture and more than resistance, offer a compelling alternative. Our ancestors in the faith have frequently had to face similar challenges as we do.”

The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art by Luke Timothy Johnson
“This book explores theology through the experiences of the body: the dying body, the aging body, the sexual body, the body in play and the body at work. It’s a compelling argument by a New Testament scholar that scripture itself is a response to the experience of God in the body, and hence we should pay attention to the body for signs of God’s presence among us.”

Joe Duffus

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era by Michael Gerson with Peter Wehner
“This looks like a fitting start for traditional or evangelical Christians to consider in light of changes in our culture and the sharp decline of civility in discussion.”

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
“This book tells the stories of various people whose lives were ruined by Internet ‘mobs’ that reacted to things those people said on social media. He wrote a long article based on the book for the New York Times a while back that I keep coming back to, because of what it says about how people’s online behavior has become so much more impulsive, vicious and bombastic than anything they might do face-to-face.”

Don Meeks

Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides by Scott Sauls
From Amazon: “Whether the issue of the day on Twitter, Facebook, or cable news is our sexuality, political divides, or the perceived conflict between faith and science, today’s media pushes each one of us into a frustrating clash between two opposing sides. Polarizing, us-against-them discussions divide us and distract us from thinking clearly and communicating lovingly with others. Scott Sauls, like many of us, is weary of the bickering and is seeking a way of truth and beauty through the conflicts. Jesus Outside the Lines presents Jesus as this way. Scott shows us how the words and actions of Jesus reveal a response that does not perpetuate the destructive fray. Jesus offers us a way forward – away from harshness, caricatures and stereotypes. In Jesus Outside the Lines, you will experience a fresh perspective of Jesus, who will not (and should not) fit into the sides.”

Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew by Charles D. Drew
From Amazon: “Can Christians be political activists without hating those who disagree? As the next presidential election comes into view, Americans are deciding where to stand on the key issues. The church has often been as politically divided as the culture, leading many Christians to withdraw from politics or to declare alliances prematurely. But Charles Drew offers an alternative for people who care deeply about their faith and about the church’s corporate calling in the world. In this updated and revised version of A Public Faith (NavPress 2000), Drew helps Christians to develop practical biblical convictions about critical social and political issues. Carefully distinguishing between moral principle and political strategy, Body Broken equips believers to build their political activism upon a thoughtful and biblical foundation. This balanced approach will provide readers Democrats, Republicans, or Independents with a solid biblical foundation for decision making. Drew even helps Christians of all political persuasions to understand how they can practice servanthood, cooperation and integrity in today’s public square. With questions at the end of each chapter to help readers explore and apply principles, Body Broken will train believers to actively engage with political issues while standing united as a church.”

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
From Amazon: “Drawing on more than four decades of polling data, The End of White Christian America explains and analyzes the waning vitality of white Christian America. Jones argues that the visceral nature of today’s most heated issues—the vociferous arguments around same-sex marriage and religious liberty, the rise of the Tea Party following the election of our first black president, and stark disagreements between black and white Americans over the fairness of the criminal justice system—can only be understood against the backdrop of white Christians’ anxieties as America’s racial and religious topography shifts around them.”

Jessica Tate

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland
“This is a book that takes our all-too-common labels of one another as ‘right Christians’ and ‘wrong Christians,’ explores the sociology behind our division, and reminds us that Jesus commands us to love our neighbors (all of them), just as he did — relentlessly.”

The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words by Deborah Tannen
“Written in 1998, this one is starting to show some age, but continues to be a helpful book as it traces today’s public discourse (or lack thereof). While it is a linguistic perspective, not a theological one, Tannen opens by saying, ‘This is not another book about civility…. Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention — an argument culture.'”

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin
“This book paints the picture of Nelson Mandela’s consistent and persistent work to humanize white Afrikaners and black South Africans to one another through the winning of their hearts in a united force behind the rugby team – the Springboks. It’s a compelling story of playing the long game, refusing to demonize, and seeking to find the image of God in every person. I read it as a parable.”

Quinn Fox

The Road to Character by David Brooks
“One of the leading public intellectuals of our day, Brooks challenges readers to focus on the deeper values that should inform our lives—by striving to shift the focus of our living away from the ‘résumé virtues’—achieving wealth, fame and status—toward the ‘eulogy virtues’—those character traits that are worthy of being at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.”

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter
“To change hearts and minds has been the goal of modern Christians seeking to correct a culture deemed fallen and morally lax. Hunter (author of Culture Wars) finds this approach pervasive among Christians of all stripes and in every case deeply flawed, to the point of undermining the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance. After charting the history of Christian assumptions and efforts to change culture, Hunter investigates the nature of power and politics in Christian life and thought, and then proposes an alternative: what he calls the practice of faithful presence, rooted not in a desire to change the world… but rather in a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth.”

Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World by Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, and David W. Montgomery
“Written by a team of scholars who specialize in helping communities engage with difference, this book explores the challenges and necessities of accommodating difference, however difficult and uncomfortable such accommodation may be. The authors are part of an organization that has worked internationally with community leaders, activists, and other partners to take the insights of anthropology out of the classroom and into the world. Rather than addressing conflict by emphasizing what is shared, Living with Difference argues for the centrality of difference in creating community, seeking ways not to overcome or deny differences but to live with and within them in a self-reflective space and practice.”

Reconciliation Within

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Don Meeks and Jeff Krehbiel are curating “Can We Talk?”, a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience. Can we bridge the theological differences that divide us? Can we even talk about them? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Brian Ellison

What makes for reconciliation – authentic partnership, visible and felt unity, genuinely mutual care and affection – among people who on the most important questions already agree? Why do they need reconciliation at all?

Much of my work in the church has been focused on trying to build bridges — or at least address the divide — between theological conservatives and liberals. I’ve done that, with increasing openness, as a progressive, and for the last four years have led the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that advocates for inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the church’s life and leadership, and more broadly for a church-wide ethos of justice and love for all people. This has involved a lot of conversation with “the other side” — those who identify as evangelicals or conservatives. There’s plenty of discord there to work on.

bridge-bwBut the history of progressive work in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is also filled with accounts of people and groups whose primary interests, theological foundations and long-term goals are the same, but who for whatever reason could not seem to come together. This was true in centuries past among reformist and forward-looking voices, dividing the denomination repeatedly sometimes among the most nuanced of lines. It was true in the civil rights era as a proliferation of agencies, caucuses and causes elbowed their way into prominence, not always on the same page. And it was true in the long struggle for LGBTQ inclusion and equality (a struggle, we should note, that is still underway), when various advocacy organizations vied not merely with their opponents but with each other for how best to fight the fight.

(It is also true, it seems fair to say, among conservative voices, time and again boiling down to a “should we stay or should we go” debate, played out generation after generation and diluting that movement’s impact — or damage, depending on one’s perspective.)

The Covenant Network, for its two decades of existence, has been an exemplar of the consensus-building, take-it-slow, find-common-ground approach to progressive work that is found by some to be comforting and effective and others to be infuriating and painful.

The Essential Nature of Reconciliation Within a Movement

I’ve been thinking about the line that sometimes separates those within the same movement. Reconciliation and mutual understanding among those who share a vision for the church, I’m coming to think, is every bit as essential for the unity of the church. And if it is true that generally more progressive elements are now in a season of setting the general tone and direction for the church’s life, are not those internecine relationships essential for the health of unity across that greater divide, the one between separating progressives from conservative Presbyterians who fear for their church’s future, as well?

To that end, I want to explore how various voices, often in conflict with one another not about the “what” and “why” but about the “how” and “when,” work together in common cause. How do we ensure we are not merely shifting the battle lines to the left, but rather finding a way to do less battling altogether?

I should be honest about my own predispositions: the Covenant Network role suits me. Before this call, I was pastor of a theologically diverse congregation. I have served as a presbytery stated clerk and a Committee on Ministry moderator. I work part-time as a political journalist at an NPR station, seeking to model fact-based and objective evenhandedness in my reporting. I’m a gay man who grew up in a conservative setting that helps me understand that mindset and speak the language; some of my best friends are evangelicals, one might say. That sort of reconciliation work comes naturally.

But I’ve worked with many engaged in struggles for justice and equality far longer than I, who have suffered far more than I, and who have little patience for an approach consistent with my comfort level. There is truth to be spoken, and they speak it boldly, frequently, loudly. Justice delayed is justice denied. When anyone suffers, we all continue to suffer. And now that our views are in the ascendancy, why take a slice, they might ask, when we rightly should enjoy the whole justice pie?

The difference in approach is real, and discord between the camps within the camp with real consequences. Taken to their extremes, one is prophetic and the other pragmatic. One gets things done but compromises; one remains true to self even if victory must wait another day. One might wait to bring others along, while one does the right thing and trusts that others will eventually catch up.

How It Can Happen

Is reconciliation necessary? Certainly at times it is. Sometimes the deepest wounds are the ones suffered at the hands of one’s allies. And even when there is no “friendly fire” injury, there is still the sense that what one group regards as victory, the other sees as loss. Progress for one is a setback to the other.

So as we think about reconciliation among those who already purport to agree (not just about LGBTQ issues but in any common work for building up the church), I invite us to consider a few health elements to guide our time and energy.

Focus on relationships

When Jesus encountered opponents, he engaged them. When he encountered the other, he sat down with them for a meal. When he spoke about addressing conflict or concern, he counseled seeking someone out for conversation. Nothing good comes from us keeping our distance. And the best way to facilitate meaningful conversation in time of conflict is for that conversation to happen organically with someone we already know, have already shared our story with, have already found common ground and interests. If damage has already been done, this may need to begin with confession, repentance and forgiveness.

This is good practice in presbyteries, in congregations and certainly among leaders of groups advocating similar agendas. Relationship isn’t just preparation for Christian work; it is the Christian work. When we show God’s love in relationship, we are living out our mission. When we are able to speak to each other as friends, not merely as fellow laborers, true reconciliation becomes possible.

Translate common commitments to common action

Many problems in the past have occurred when the two groups — appreciative of each other’s position but distrustful of each other’s ideas — have organized separately, developed separate goals and eventually found themselves working at cross-purposes. A way forward includes sitting down together early enough (or frequently enough) that our common ground can be not only around big ideas, but also in specific ways of embodying them.

This involves compromise at times, but perhaps not as much as one might expect. When the coming together happens in the formative stages, the action plan can develop organically and mutually. Both parties have ownership, together with an appreciation for the journey toward the outcome. All are more invested in the project, and none are left to exercise judgment on the goal’s inadequacy or error.

Always have an eye to broader reconciliation

Finally, those seeking reconciliation within a movement must assume a certain attitude toward inclusion. This is a matter of posture rather than specific policy. It is about how to bring the most people on board, including (in time) those across the wider aisle. When our thinking about the future of the church (or any other organization) is systematically geared toward welcoming others in, we find ourselves less inclined to draw lines and more prone to open doors. When we think less about defeating our “opponents” and more about inviting them as guests (or even co-hosts), then we will speak differently, act differently, decide differently. And when we live with an eye to the day when all will be one, then our more modest “internal” differences decrease in perceived importance.

Concluding Thoughts

I have been blessed to see healthy relationships form and blossom, both within diverging voices in my own organization, and between our leadership and that of other groups (like More Light Presbyterians). We have frequently (though not always!) done faithful work to model the hope and care and mutual appreciation we long for in the whole church. My hope and prayer is that all who seek to do God’s work together might similarly tend to their relationships with one another — trusting that each small step of reconciliation will ultimately lead to the reconciliation of us all.


brian-marriage-sermonBrian Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network, which has worked since 1997 for inclusion of all people and unity among those with differing views in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He previously served as pastor of Parkville (Mo.) Presbyterian Church and as a member and moderator of committees at the General Assembly and Heartland Presbytery. Brian lives in Kansas City, Mo., where he also is a host/contributor at NPR affiliate KCUR-FM, a freelance writer, and an adjunct instructor in preaching.