Seasick Church

by Mary Harris Todd

Lately the story of the storm at sea in Acts 27 has been much on my mind.

Storm at Sea Flickr-6676320505Paul and his shipmates were caught in a violent storm that just went on and on and on, tossing the ship up and down. The text says that they didn’t eat for fourteen days. My hunch is that everybody had to stick close to the rail. Even pastor Paul was dreadfully seasick. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t resist reminding the crew that they should have listened when he told them much earlier that they needed to do something different. Moreover, the passengers and crew were disoriented. Verse 20 reads, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

Our congregation is traveling through a stormy time of grief and loss and uncertainty and fear, plus we are downright bewildered about how to reach people beyond our current boundaries and incorporate them into the life of the family of faith. We are experiencing up-and-down worship attendance, and a few Sundays have been painfully low. On one of those Sundays one of our ruling elders reports feeling literally nauseated.

Yet there are also hopeful signs to give thanks for. God is bringing us into contact with new people, including a flock of children and their families. It was a joy to spend Tuesday afternoons this summer with some of them in a VBS-like experience in one of the children’s homes.  On a recent Sunday evening we had a service of evening prayer focused on anointing and laying on of hands for healing, and communion.  So many people came that we had to move from a smaller room to the church fellowship hall.

Wow! Talk about going up and down with the waves!

After Paul got the urge to say, “I told you so” out of his system, he went on to tell his shipmates, “Keep up your courage! There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. The ship is going to be wrecked, but we are all going to be safe.” Then later, when some of the sailors were tempted to abandon the ship and sail away in a lifeboat, Paul called out, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The soldiers on board then cut away the lifeboat and set it adrift. Everybody ended up staying on board.

Then, just before daybreak on the day of the shipwreck, Paul urged everybody to take food. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, ate, and gave it to others. Holy communion!

Hours later, the ship ran aground and began to break up. Everyone headed for shore. Some swam, while others floated on pieces of the ship. In the end, all reached shore safely. Not one person was lost.

There’s a word from the Lord here for the storm-tossed, seasick church. While the institutional vessel may be wrecked and broken, God is going to get us safely to the shore. And while we mourn the loss of the vessel as we knew it, the Church of Jesus Christ lives. Even now, God is inspiring designs for new vessels, and building is underway. Not one to waste anything, God may well be reclaiming strong, seasoned lumber from the wreckage and repurposing it. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Take heart, seasick church! Over the sound of the storm, above the waves of queasiness and waves of exhilaration, a voice calls, “Take. Eat. This is my body, broken for you.”


Mary Harris ToddMary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

The Witness of the NEXT Church in an Election Year… and Every Year

By Chris Chakoian

Exactly fifty years ago, Karl Barth said “Take your Bible, and your newspaper, and read both” (in Time, 4/20/1962). My guess is today he’d tell us to look our screens – including the presidential debates. But it’s gotten so ugly, it’s hard to watch. (Women in a binder, anybody?)  At the vice presidential debate, Martha Raddatz nailed it:

“I recently spoke to a highly decorated soldier who said that this presidential campaign has left him dismayed. He told me, quote, ‘the ads are so negative and they are all tearing down each other rather than building up the country.’ What would you say to that American hero about this campaign? And at the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”

I don’t know about them, but I’m embarrassed. Worse, I know that I’m contributing to the vitriol. Yuck.

I’m not naïve. Conflict is part of life. We have different, sometimes mutually exclusive goals, priorities, values. But how do we handle conflict? For me, the answer is (often), badly. I know we’re hardwired to fight, to flee, or to freeze. But we’re also “made in the image and likeness of God” – and with a frontal cortex, we have the capacity to overrule our first reactions.

What would happen if we took Jesus seriously when he tells us to talk to our opponent directly instead of gossiping or slandering … to bring in a couple of others as referees if we need to … or, at worst, to treat the other person “as a Gentile or a tax collector”? If we think for a nanosecond about how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, maybe we can aspire to treat our opponents in the same way: not as stupid, unworthy, or lost causes, but as children of God deserving of grace, as ones who don’t yet understand, but who may yet grasp the power of God’s love, who are invited to come into the family of grace.

Last Thursday I heard Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps, speak at Chicago Ideas Week. (Eboo is Muslim, btw.) He talked about what we learn when we listen to each other. How Martin Luther King, Jr. learned his greatest lesson not from a Christian but from Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. Then Eboo talked about a young woman in the Interfaith Youth Corp – Balpreet Kaur.

balpreetOn September 22, someone unknown to Balpreet took this picture of her in line at the OSU bookstore and posted it on Reddit in the “funny” section.

The caption read, “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” Soon a torrent of posts flowed in:  –”Beards on women are now in!!! yes!!!” “So is this a transgendered Sikh? Explains why they haven’t shaved and the Turban. One of those things has got to go.” One person said, “It’s Pat,” the SNL mystery man-woman.

This is how Balpreet responded on Reddit:

“Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. …I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being …and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will.

“My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognized that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? No one is going to remember what I looked like. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating chance and progress for this world in any way I can.

“To me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello.”

Balpreet Kaur did what Jesus taught, maybe better than most Christians do. It gives me hope for the rest of us … even now.


christineChakoian_fullsizeThe Rev. Christine Chakoian has led the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois since 2005; on her arrival it became the largest church in the denomination headed by a woman pastor. She serves on the advisory board of the NEXT Church as well as the board of trustees of McCormick Theological Seminary and the Lebanese American University, a Presbyterian-affiliated college in Beirut. A frequent contributor to 30 Good Minutes, a national public television program, Ms. Chakoian is also a columnist for The Presbyterian Outlook and The Christian Century.

Funding Realities and the Future Church

by Dr. Ed Brenegar

The question crossed my mind, “What if non-profits are no longer fundable? What does this mean for churches and presbyteries? How will we fund the church in the future?”

I have been asking these questions in the places where I serve as a leadership and stewardship consultant and teaching elder. Until recently, I was a fund raiser for campus ministries in North Carolina, now I am an interim pastor of a small church.  Also, I chair my presbytery’s stewardship committee and leadership division of committees, am a member of its Administrative Board and the presbytery’s Transitional Task Force, which is looking, in part, at the future funding structure of our presbytery.

In each context, questions about the future funding of the church and presbyteries are becoming more focused and urgent.

What am I seeing? The funding of the church and presbyteries is in transition. This year, 2012,  has been the worst year for fund raising that I’ve seen in 30+ years of involvement with churches, non-profits and fund raising campaigns.  I see a change in the way people are managing their charitable dollar. Our assumption about the importance of the deductibility of non-profit and church donations as a solid reason for people to give is no longer as certain. In a disruptive global economic climate, cash in hand means more than a tax deduction. Other people may see something different, but this is what I see.

What then distinguishes givers from non-givers? I believe it is fairly simple. Givers have a clear sense of mission and a spirit of generosity.  They are focused in their giving, and give to designated causes in order to meet their own sense of responsibility as a steward of their wealth.  They give generously if the church’s mission matches their commitments.  Being missional is the key to sustaining membership giving.

What else do I see? The most troubling phenomenon that I see in the church is the withholding of funds to coerce change.  This intentional weakening of the structure is a reaction to the politicization of the church in society at large. This practice of protest, in my opinion, has no justification. Yet, it is widely practiced. The practical result is that it exacerbates the historic pattern of church and presbytery budgets being funded by a small number of individuals and churches.  This reality should be openly discussed in churches and presbyteries.

How will the church in the future be funded? There are two answers to this question.

First, churches will be funded as they always have, by people who are committed to the mission of the church. Therefore it is imperative that every local congregation and every presbytery have a very clear mission that creates the conditions for both financial and spiritual sustainability.

Second, churches will be funded as the church adapts to the changes in organizational structures that are taking place in both the non-profit and for-profit worlds. These two worlds, non- and for- profit, are beginning to morph into new types of organizations. An environmental organization where I am an advisor is in the process of converting from a non-profit to a for-profit in order to diversify the way it funds its research work. Creatively linking a for-profit business with a philanthropic foundation with a non-profit organization is a possible way for traditional non-profit organizations to find new resources. Just as a growing number of ministers serve bi-vocationally, so can an association of local churches develop ways of generating revenue to support the mission of the church.

What should your church do now?

First, don’t preach about being generous. It sounds desperate. Instead celebrate God’s call into mission and the impact of your church’s programs and ministries. Celebrating generous giving is a response to God’s grace at work through the church.

Second, integrate your congregation’s mission focus into every aspect of the life of your congregation. Make sure you can demonstrate the tangible difference your mission makes through each of your programs and ministries.

Third, be honest and transparent about your budget and your sources of income.

Start now, while you have the opportunity.


Ed-LIL2-2010-6Dr. Ed Brenegar is a life-long Presbyterian, a Tar Heel born and bred, teaching elder for three decades, a validated minister serving as a leadership consultant, a life / work transition coach, creator of The Stewardship of Gratitude strategy and The Circle of Impact Conversation Guides, occasional interim minister, honored blogger, speaker, and restless inquisitor of the impact of God’s grace in our time. Find Ed online at: Leading Questions blog and At The Table of Thanks: Presbyterian Life & Mission.

The Courage to Die

by Jessica Tate

I’m an Apple (computer) enthusiast. While I’ve resisted temptation of the iPhone 5, I have been paying attention to its press. In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Steven Pearlstein noted a trend in the tech world. Three of the most dominating firms have tanked in recent years.

  • Nokia was once the mobile phone leader with 40% of the global market. It had a smartphone prototype a decade before iPhone came out, but didn’t turn technology into competitive product quickly enough. Now their marketshare is cut in half.
  • Blackberry sales are down 95% and business experts wonder if Research in Motion (its maker) will survive.
  • Best Buy killed Circuit City and Sears once upon a time, but now it is getting creamed by cheaper on-line options.

“One lesson to be drawn from all three stories,” Pearlstein writes, “is the danger faced by dominant firms that refuse to cannibalize themselves–to give up existing sales in order to get the jump on next-generation products and services.”

Apple, he says, ruled the personal music player with the iPod, but realized that if someone developed a phone that could play music as well as the iPod, they’d be toast. Rather than try to shore up the iPod market, Apple cannibalized themselves, introducing the very product they feared most. The results speak for themselves.

Franklin Golden, co-pastor of Durham Church, shared the inspiring story of Durham Church’s revitalization effort at the NEXT gathering in North Carolina this summer. Durham church is a multi-cultural congregation devoted to reconciliation, service and evangelism. They have some grace-infused stories to share about overcoming racial and cultural differences and dealing with issues of power head-on.

“Other pastors say they want the deep ministry Durham Church has,” Golden said. “No, you don’t,” he replies. “You don’t what this. Not until you’re ready to give up all the trappings of church.” The hard-earned wisdom they’ve received is this: “When privilege and power come up against the reign of God you can run away or you can die.”

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  — John 12:24

I wonder what we, as a church, might be holding onto too tightly? What part of ourselves must we let go, let die, so that we might bear much fruit?


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.