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2017 National Gathering Opening Worship

Alonzo Johnson preaches the opening worship service of the 2017 National Gathering.

Scripture: John 4:1-42

Alonzo Johnson is coordinator for the Self-Development of People Program (SDOP). SDOP is a branch of the PCUSA’s Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry. He is also the convener of the Educate A Child, Transform the World initiative. Alonzo has 25 years of experience specializing in urban, youth, education, creative arts and social justice ministries. He served an urban congregation in Philadelphia, PA, and worked as a volunteer chaplain for 9 years at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in LaGrange, KY. He has an MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently a DMin student at the same institution.

 

A New Statement of Faith

On Tuesday, March 14, at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering, we released a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. It’s called the Sarasota Statement, and it was made possible by a partnership between NEXT Church and the Presbyterian Foundation. We hope you’ll take the statement into your own life and context, using it as a tool to declare your own faith statement, proclaiming the light of Christ.

Glen Bell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota and member of the NEXT Church strategy team, has written more about the genesis of the Sarasota Statement. Please continue reading to learn more.


by Glen Bell

Near the beginning of 2017, Brandon Frick, a former participant in the Pastoral Development Seminar at First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, contacted me. Brandon was convinced that in this moment of difficulty and division in the life of our nation and church, we needed to write and profess a new statement of faith in a non-partisan way, beyond any ideology.

Brandon asked me if NEXT Church, which is committed to a vibrant future for our Presbyterian tradition, would be interested in hosting and sponsoring the writing of such a faith statement. Jessica Tate, the director of NEXT Church, and I communicated with the strategy team (board) of NEXT Church. They enthusiastically agreed.

The Sarasota Statement team

Presbyterians have always been a people of confessional statements. We have adopted statements of our beliefs, Catholic, Protestant and Reformed, in our Book of Confessions, part of the constitution of our Presbyterian Church (USA). Some confessions represent the common convictions of the Christian faith (for example, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed). Others reflect the roots of the Reformation and our Presbyterian tradition (for example, the Scots Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith). Still others speak a powerful word in light of specific challenges in certain times and places (for example, the Barmen Declaration and the Belhar Confession).

A group of eight diverse participants in the Presbyterian Church (USA) gathered in Sarasota on January 23 and 24 of this year. Together, the group wrote a first draft of a statement of faith. Over subsequent weeks, the group refined their work. The Sarasota Statement is being released publicly at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Kansas City, March 13-15.

The primary writers were: Katie Baker, pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Chris Currie, pastor in Shreveport, Louisiana; Brandon Frick, pastor in Severna Park, Maryland; Bertram Johnson, pastor in New York, New York; Cynthia Rigby, professor at Austin Seminary; and  Layton Williams, audience engagement editor at Sojourners Magazine. Hosts, conveners and secondary writers were Jessica Tate and I.

In the past, almost every statement of faith created and publicly distributed across the church has the result of the selection of a diverse group of scholars and leaders, authorized by a General Assembly. The group works carefully and creatively over several years, and the result is then approved by a subsequent General Assembly and included in the Book of Confessions.

This model is quite different. We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe. The hope of NEXT Church and the writers of the Sarasota Statement is this: We encourage groups of Presbyterians, in a rich and colorful diversity of relationships, both within and beyond congregations, to conceive and declare their own faith statements, proclaiming the light of Christ. 

This statement speaks to the church. It represents only the eight writers individually (as well as NEXT Church and the Presbyterian Foundation, which facilitated its creation). It does not speak on behalf of any of the churches or organizations the writers serve. We are eager to hear your thoughts and reflections about the Sarasota Statement. In April, this blog will feature pieces from those involved in the creation of the statement. Join us then to continue the conversation. In the meantime, comment here, or send us an email. We hope the Sarasota Statement might move you in your own context.

To God be the glory!


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Living in a Constant State of Motion

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 Erin Hayes Cook

Put away your Bible cassette tapes and overhead projectors: the future is now. Journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman pauses his life to hear the cultural significance of busyness in his latest book, Thank You for Being Late. What he hears is not what you expect. Friedman realizes that our technological innovations move faster than our society and institutions can adapt. We are left feeling exhilarated and left behind all at the same time.

Friedman interviews everyone from the CEO of Google X research and development lab, Eric “Astro” Teller, to his hometown’s mayor. What humans need to develop in this age of accelerations is dynamic stability. Teller points out, “there are some ways of being, like riding a bicycle, where you cannot stand still, but once you are moving it is actually easier. It is not our natural state. But humanity has to learn to exist in this state.” Yes, humans are adaptive creatures but we have never had to adapt so quickly and with such versatility.

Through Friedman’s colorful and thorough research, I’ve learned what many of us knew but could not put into words. The institution of the church needs to teach her leaders, people in the pews, and potential community members how to develop their adaptability skills. We no longer move at the pace of the printing press. It’s Twitter’s fault. How can we learn to share the gospel when the vehicles of human experience change so rapidly? Be ready to be moved by the Spirit wherever she blows. And get rid of the overhead projectors. I’m sure Apple will come out with an app for it next week.

Send this book to your pastor friends and those considering ministry. Anyone who enjoys a detailed read interwoven with human story will appreciate it. However, Thank You for Being Late would not lend itself to a book study in my opinion. If you’d like to use it as a teaching tool, I would suggest putting excerpts in a bible study or topical discussion.


Erin Hayes-Cook serves a multicultural PC(USA) church in the small city of Rahway, NJ. She believes her call is to be bridge between cultures and generations where she currently serves. Outside of ministry life you will find her at the CrossFit gym or looking for a new recipe.  

Speaking Our Truth Without Shaming Those Who Don’t See It: The Soul of Shame

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 Linda Kay Klein

One of the most meaningful influences on my ministry and work today is Dr. Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame — a Bible-based exegesis of shame authored by a psychologist most comfortable in the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality.

At a time of tremendous national division, I wonder if some of us have become too comfortable with the notion that we and our kind are “right” and “good,” while others are “wrong” and “bad.” For example, I recently heard a pastor say that she would not speak with anyone from “the other side” unless they first admitted to her that they were a bad person. The room full of similarly-politically-minded pastors and other religious leaders mmhmm’d in agreement.

I am uneasy with how easy shaming has become among us. And I fear that, if left unchecked, it will continue to lead us down a very destructive path.

After all, that’s just what shame does.

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about what shame — or what Thompson calls “the primarily tool that evil leverages, out of which emerges everything that we would call sin” (page 22) — actually is, and how it affects us. From a research perspective, shame is different from guilt, humiliation, embarrassment or any of the other words we tend to lump together.

For example, researchers consider guilt the feeling “I have done something bad,” and shame the feeling “I am something bad.” The effects of these two neuropsychological states on people’s lives could not be more different. Whereas guilt makes us reach out to people and connect in an effort to repair relationships, shame inspires us to disconnect — perhaps we withdraw, lash out (either at ourselves or others) or hide.

It is important to name and fight for what we see as right, and against what we see as wrong. But when we engage in shaming — dehumanizing others by declaring them, rather than their positions or actions, to be wrong or bad — we create what Thompson refers to as “states of aloneness within us and between us, and most substantially between us and God” (page 54).

It is the disconnection that shame and shaming engenders within and among us that causes Thompson to refer to shame as “the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity” (page 13).

For communities that are, like me, trying to find ways to unapologetically speak and fight for our truths while honoring the humanity of those who disagree with us, Thompson’s book is a resource. He presents meaningfully about the nature of shame, which can help us understand the dangers of shaming, and offers Biblical tools for growth and healing. Thompson’s review of Biblical stories through the lens of shame also makes it a particularly strong tool for those interested in offering sermons and Bible studies on the subject.


Linda Kay Klein blends research and stories to expose unseen social problems and devise potential solutions. Her current project centers around the developmental effects of purity-based religious sexuality education programs on the lives of girls as they grow into adulthood. Formerly, Linda was the founding director of the Work on Purpose program at Echoing Green, a social entrepreneurship accelerator best known for helping launch Teach For America, the Freelancers Union, City Year, and over 600 other ground-breaking social change organizations.

Bonhoeffer Biography Espouses Transforming “The Proud and Hateful” into Love

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 Ken Kovacs

One book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration in these days is Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the experience of the Confessing Church, the resistance movement (from 1933 to 1945) within German Protestantism against the policies of the Third Reich. Marsh’s remarkable biography of Bonhoeffer, who was an active member of the Confessing Church, provides a fascinating window into the emergence, objectives, activities, struggles, and many disappointments of the movement.

Most striking is the way Marsh charts the changes in Bonhoeffer’s own theology, as he internally wrestles with and actively engages the demonic principalities and powers of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer’s activism and call to resistance were in response to, “The absurd, perpetual state of being thrown back upon the invisible God” (156), as he put it, to renewed Christological commitments, as well as a new interest in the centrality of prayer, worship, and life in community. “And the church,” Bonhoeffer said, “that calls a people to belief in Christ must itself be, in the midst of that people, the burning fire of love, the nucleus of reconciliation, the source of the fire in which all hate is consumed, and the proud and hateful are transformed into the loving” (204).

While it is false (I hope) to say that the present climate in the U.S. is exactly parallel to what happened in Nazi Germany (though there are eerie similarities), the church can be informed by what happened then as it seeks to be faithful today. Bonhoeffer witnessed a swift increase in authoritarianism, xenophobia, aggression toward the feminine, populism, and the dangerous conflation of religion, politics, and belief in an illusory national myth.

And, significantly, he soon realized that the church, along with its theological faculties in German universities, were theologically weak and ill equipped to withstand the collective force of what was happening around and in them. The Barmen Declaration, for example, expressed potential political resistance, but was largely ineffective and didn’t constitute real resistance. (Some of the Confessing Church members at Barmen were also members of the Nazi Party.)

Marsh maintains that, “[D]ogmatic proclamation would never be enough” for Bonhoeffer, because “every confession of Christ as Lord must bear concretely on the immediate work of peace. Obedience could not be separated from confession. The kingdom of heaven does not suffer lip service” (225). These are challenging words for all of us, especially for pastors and preachers.


Ken Kovacs has served as pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, since 1999. Catonsville, situated in Baltimore County, borders Baltimore City to the east and the wealthy suburbs of Howard County to the west. As a result, their ministry reflects the experiences and needs of an economically-socially-politically-racially diverse demographic. Ken’s academic work is in practical theology, which explored the relationality of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit.

Are the Spiritual but Not Religious Turning East?

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post blog. Linda Mercadante is our Monday evening keynote speaker at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering.

by Linda Mercadante

Are we all Hindu now? That’s what a Newsweek magazine claimed in 2009 when it observed the burgeoning world of the “nones.” “Nones” are those not affiliated with any part of the American religious heritage. Surveys seem to indicate they prefer not to identify with any religion at all. But the Newsweek article suggested instead that we are not seeing so much a lack of religious affiliation as conversion to some other world of beliefs, in particular Eastern.

Are we seeing a “turn to the East” among those people unaffiliated with any particular organized religion, especially those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious?” I don’t think so. Of course, the influence of America’s increasing religious diversity is evident in the burgeoning world of alternative spiritualities. And there is, in fact, a particular attraction to certain ideas borrowed from such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, such as “monism.”

But after spending the last five years speaking with hundreds of SBNRs, attending their diverse gatherings and learning as much as I could about and from them, I don’t think we are truly seeing a conversion to Eastern religions or religious ideas. Instead, I contend that many SBNRs are creating a particularly American spiritual mix, borrowing, adapting and adjusting from many sources. The key ingredients of this mix, however, are distinctly American. Here are some of them.

First, it is individualistic. Americans have always valued freedom of religion, but until recently were still fairly committed “joiners.” Now, joining with like-minded religious others does not seem to be as compelling for many. While most religions promote some form of community to a greater or lesser degree, this new spirituality does not give this top priority.

Second, it is “detraditioning.” Given that most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, America has always held tradition a bit more lightly than other places. And much of American Protestantism did stress “the priesthood of all believers.” But this new American spirituality takes that impulse further. Now, the source of spiritual authority” has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” In other words, many feel they must rely primarily on their own spiritual judgment rather than looking to an authoritative figure or tradition as many religions advocate.

Third, it is therapeutic. Many Americans are focused on becoming whole and healthy, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Whereas many religions see greater goals beyond personal well-being, this new American spirituality often promotes this as primary.

And, fourth, this American mixture takes the freedom to pick and choose ideas, adapting them to the American context. There seems little felt obligation to take the whole religious package of any particular tradition. As a case in point, many of my interviewees believe in reincarnation. However, their version is often unlike an Eastern form, which allows that one might regress, rather than inevitably progress, in the next life. My interviewees Americanized this. Our belief in “second chances,” late-bloomers, and the rewards of perseverance, made them insist that endless lives of self-improvement were the trajectory of the afterlife.

There are many implications, both positive and negative, of this new American spirituality. But whether we applaud or lament it, it is impressive to see American resourcefulness at work. In the end, I don’t see a literal “turn to the East,” much less a rush to convert to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, among my hundreds of conversation partners, all SBNRs, I saw very few who actually “converted” to a different religion. Instead, they borrowed, adapted, and adjusted what they found attractive or compelling in the culturally and religiously diverse world increasingly around us. My interviewees often believe that, rather than joining any particular religious group, they must keep their options open on the journey of spiritual growth.

“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.