Creating a Permeable Community

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah-Dianne Jones

As the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) with NEXT Church, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on community. One of the core tenets of the YAV program is intentional Christian community. We are placed with 4-8 other young adults and asked to make a covenant with one another, share a budget, and truly become a community. A huge part of my reflection has revolved around this intentional community I live with, but I’ve also been thinking about community within local congregations, NEXT Church, and the National Gathering.

Community is hard. It takes a lot of work to build a strong and supportive one no matter the setting. I have learned that the struggle with building community comes in large part because there’s no one way to make it work. The effort has to come from both sides.

At the National Gathering, people come together to worship, learn, and enjoy one another’s company in a community made up of people from all over the United States. For many, it’s a time to come together with friends that they don’t get to see very often, swap stories about life in ministry, and catch up. It’s a space in the year to take a breath and release some of the stress of everyday routine.

I attended the National Gathering for two years before I came to be NEXT Church’s YAV. It has become one of the highlights of my year, but I remember walking into registration at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2015 and feeling completely overwhelmed. There I was with a group of Presbyterians that I didn’t know very well and I didn’t really know what to do. As the National Gathering went by, I began to meet different people through friends and my comfort level increased. Last year, in Atlanta, I knew people. My community was there. I always had people to sit with at lunch and knew people to ask about going to dinner. For me, going back into a community I was now familiar with, it wasn’t an experience of feeling isolated.

In Kansas City, I approached the National Gathering from a different side. My role was to coordinate volunteers and be present at the information desk, so I did not spend much time in the ballroom. I did, however, hear comments from some folks about feeling isolated.

I don’t think that there’s any worse feeling than being surrounded by a community and feeling isolated from it. It’s an experience that I have had before and would love to never repeat. I have found myself thinking about the work that the community must put in. How can a community make itself more easily permeable? How can we be an open and welcoming space to those who are entering our communities for the first time? What do we need to change about the way that we encounter others so that they feel that they are seen?

These are questions that don’t apply solely to the National Gathering. I think that congregations, youth groups, presbyteries, and neighborhoods should be asking them every week! We are called to be in true community with one another, not to be isolated. What does that look like? I think that sometimes the answers are simpler than we might think. It might be that a door opens when you sit at a different table or in a different pew every week. It might be that you take on the practice of noticing those who seem to be spending a lot of time alone and making a point of speaking to them. In my community with the other YAVs, we make a point of truly showing up for one another, even when we’d rather stay to ourselves. A question was now ask each other during our community meetings is, “What did you risk for the community this week?” It might be that we risked vulnerability when it would be easier to keep our feelings or experiences to ourselves, or it could be that we risked a new experience that is out of our comfort zone. Our new practice reminds each of us that the work that we each do individually to build our community is critical to its strength. These are small steps, but they’re a start.

We are better and stronger when we are in community with one another. Community isn’t an easy thing, but it’s worth the work.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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