Prophetic Theology From a Non-Theologian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Teri McDowell Ott

James Baldwin was not a theologian. He, in fact, left the church after a friend helped him realize he was only going because he was too afraid to leave. The church shaped him, though. His father was a preacher whose unsuccessful ministry took his family from church to church where he would show off young James’ singing voice. For me, Baldwin’s essays, particularly those in Notes of a Native Son, reside in the realm of prophetic theology because of the extraordinary way they describe and illuminate the African-American experience and call to account those of us who live in privileged ignorance.

In the “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin shares what could be read as his personal mission statement: “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Baldwin himself, who began writing essays and novels in the 1950’s, perhaps never imagined the lasting mark he would leave. But today he is constantly quoted when race relations boil over and a relevant voice is needed. One reason why Baldwin’s words have been so influential is because of his honesty and his “enormous humanity.” He is fair and just, giving advice to other writers that “you do not have to fully humanize your black characters by dehumanizing the white ones.”

In this fair, honest approach, Baldwin is able to articulate and describe the human experience in a way that you, as a reader, know to be true, but could never articulate for yourself. In his introduction to Notes, Edward P. Jones describes reading Baldwin as wonderful: “We read [him] and come across passages that are so arresting we become breathless and have to raise our eyes from the page to keep from being spirited away.” This was my experience of reading Baldwin and why I recommend him so highly. He will take you places. He will take you to places of honest self and social examination, to places of epiphany and insight and crucial connection. Reading Baldwin is simply divine—and necessary for those seeking to be faithful.


Teri McDowell Ott is a Presbyterian pastor who currently serves Monmouth College (IL) as chaplain. After serving in parish ministry for 13 years, Teri now feels called to the liminal space between the sacred and the secular, the church and the ‘nones,’ the traditional and the contemporary. Teri feels called to build bridges between these spaces, especially through her writing and blogging. She has written essays for Hippocampus, Mamalode and The Christian Century and she blogs at www.terimcdowellott.com. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two tow-headed children and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.

“Spirit in the Dark” Examines the Boundaries of Religious Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Derrick McQueen

The book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration for me these days is Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett. It is a work that examines the African-American cultural movements and their artistic offspring. From the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920’s through the Black Arts movement, Dr. Sorett examines the pervasive effect religion plays on these commonly seen as secular literary visions. This work is exciting because it puts religion in conversation with the secular and in doing so allows the church/religion to erase the divide between what is inside and what is outside of the church walls, or the boundaries of religious life.

Spirit in the Dark does not attempt to answer the question, “How does the church make itself relevant in the secular world?” It lays claim to the ways in which the division between the sacred and the secular is an artificial one. In fact, it sees the religious as an integral ingredient in the African-American literary tradition.

Church book study group leaders will find this book extremely helpful in training the eyes and ears to the religious undercurrents in the secular literary tradition. As Dr. Sorett’s work deals with the African-American experience, the culminating lessons are also applicable or at least adaptable for many different communities. It is just that in Spirit in the Dark, Sorett’s impressive research makes clear that the African-American experience is one that able to be clearly defined and claimed as such in this rich tapestry of literary tradition and can serve as a model to other communities.

Specifically, it frees the preacher up to understand that the literary resource of the African-American literary tradition is ripe for bringing in texts to be in conversation with the Bible and the community. It also provides a way for preachers and pastors to parse culture without giving in to the demand to “do something new to fill the pews” by watering down the theological foundations upon which their churches and communities are built. This is an important book and readers will definitely find their own jewels within.


Rev. Derrick McQueen, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Director for The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University. He is also serving as pastor to St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, N.Y., and is an adjunct professor of Worship and Preaching at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Derrick has been actively involved in work for LGBTQ inclusion in churches and society, facilitating dialogues and serving on the boards of such organizations as Presbyterian Welcome, That All May Freely Serve, More Light Presbyterians and Auburn Seminary. Recently he served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of New York City.

Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman “Sheds a Little Light”

by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Eighty years ago (1937) this month, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. published a poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

This month, the NEXT Church blog will help us all investigate God’s timing, order, and future by recommending and reviewing books that shed a little light on what is happening all around and within us in these seemingly chaotic days of 2017. The inspiration for this phrase, “shed a little light,” comes from James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light.” You can watch a video of it being performed by the Lowcountry SC Voices in Columbia here.

Lent, if nothing else, is a time for reflection on what has been and living toward what is possible with God’s help. We die to our old selves as we pray to rise to newness of life in fullest form.

Thurman published Meditations of the Heart in 1953, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco where he served as co-pastor with Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister, and professor of philosophy from 1944-1953. Both were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths.

The purpose of these meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” The meditations in this 210-page book are chock full of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for the journey. For me, all three are needed in these days as they were for his congregation in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. who was, in many ways, mentored by Thurman.

Mentoring voices from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond will follow this post throughout the coming weeks, each from various walks of life and ministry contexts including those leading theological schools, congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and non-profit organizations. Each will identify their context for ministry and call, a book they recommend, what the book is about, and why they believe it is critical reading today. My prayer is that these will become timely and descriptive “meditations of the heart,” so to speak, for a holy pilgrimage into God’s imagined future: the NEXT Church.

My sincere hope is that these posts will also provide a foundational backdrop for the conversations many of us will be having at the 2017 National Gathering on Well-Being in a Thirsty World.


I am Lee Hinson-Hasty and my call to ministry centers on vocation of leaders in the church and the world. I am always curious about how we find what Thomas Merton described as “our true selves.” Discerning vocation is, I believe, a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Vocation discerned becomes educational and, ultimately, economic in a particular social context. As a resource and advocate for theological education in the PC(USA) for more than a decade, I find my current call as Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation provides me the best opportunity I know to invite and embolden others to used their gifts to glorify God in ways that will empower leaders of Christ’s Church by supporting future ministers. I pray regularly with James Taylor and others that we will all “Recognize there are ties between us… ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. …. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”

Community Chaplaincy for Nones and Dones

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 Renee Roederer

It’s always risky to begin a conversation with a controversial statement, but I’ve decided to take the plunge here. From time to time, I motivate myself with a particular observation:

In the Gospels, there are no stories — not even one — of Jesus working really hard inside a synagogue on behalf of a synagogue.

I say that less as an effort to critique and more as an opportunity contemplate what is possible. Let me first assuage what is potentially controversial here: I value the ministry that takes place inside our church buildings. Ministry tasks of administration, programming, and planning create possibilities for faith to form and relationships to grow. They matter, as do the people who make them happen.

But I also know this: pastors frequently face expectations which limit their work to what happens inside the church — that is, inside the circle of congregational membership and inside the church building itself. In a time of congregational decline, members of churches are also anxious to increase activities inside their own circles and buildings.

If we aren’t careful, we can become isolated from the larger community and our local neighborhoods. We can get stuck in a Gospel narrative that doesn’t exist — working solely inside a church for the sole benefit of a church.

Last September, the Presbytery of Detroit decided to take a plunge with me. Together, we created a new role for ordained ministry. I had the opportunity to draft this role in concert with the Committee on Ministry. They took a creative risk and stretched their categories of validated ministry to make it happen. I am the first community chaplain in the Presbytery of Detroit. More specifically, I am a Community Chaplain for Nones and Dones. That’s my actual, quirky title. Strange as it may sound, it’s a perfect expression of what I’m commissioned to do.

Community – My work takes place primarily in the community. I attend community events, build friendships, and foster connections between people. I am often able to educate congregations about events, movements, and local needs in our neighborhoods.

Chaplain – Regionally within Southeast Michigan and on the University of Michigan campus, I meet regularly with people from a variety of religious backgrounds (and none, see below). Over coffee or lunch, we discuss large questions of faith and spirituality, discern purpose and calling, and talk about the gifts and stressors of everyday life.

Nones and Dones – This is the most unique part of my role. I am commissioned specifically to community members and students who feel disenfranchised from the church and organized religion. Long before there was an official ministry role with a title, there was a community. For the last year and a half, I’ve been organizing a new community called Michigan Nones and Dones. This community includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (Nones), people who have left established forms of institutional churches (Dones), and people who practice particular faith traditions but seek new, emerging visions for their expression. We meet in coffee shops and restaurants to discuss spirituality, and we make meaning together as we form friendships.

I feel absolutely alive in this calling, and it’s an understatement to say I’m grateful to serve in this capacity. I believe that the Presbyterian Church (USA) needs to open new possibilities for ministry service. We have creative seminarians who are nearing graduation, and many long to initiate innovative expressions of church and community life. They are completing their studies at the precise moment when fewer traditional ministry roles are available. In conversation with them, why not open the doors for new expressions of spiritual leadership?

My deepest hope is to see new expressions of community chaplaincy replicated and funded throughout the Presbyterian Church (USA). If we build this vision, we will inspire our congregations to venture more deeply into their local neighborhoods as well.


If you’d like to talk more with Renee about Community Chaplaincy, feel free to email her at revannarbor@gmail.com. Or better yet, come to the NEXT Church National Gathering and have a conversation with her over coffee (her favorite)! See also the rich history and vision of Community Chaplaincy at Focused Community Strategies in Atlanta.

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.