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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.

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Rodger Nishioka

Rodger Nishioka, Director of Adult Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS, gives the final keynote of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.


Rodger Nishioka is the director of Adult Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS. Born in Honolulu and raised in Seattle at the Japanese Presbyterian Church, Rodger is the son of a retired Presbyterian minister. He is one of the most sought-after and inspiring preachers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Rodger taught at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta for 15 years. In that ministry, he taught pastors to be teachers and leaders in the church’s educational ministry, specializing in particular on youth and young adult ministry.  

Prior to teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, Rodger was the national coordinator for Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1986-1999) and taught English and Social Sciences at Curtis Junior High School (1983-1986). Rodger received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social and Cultural Foundations of Education from Georgia State University. He earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (with an emphasis in biblical studies and theology) from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and a  Bachelor of Arts in English with Minor in History and a Teaching Certificate for Secondary Education (grades 6-12).

2017 National Gathering Ignite: Ann Hartman

Ann Hartman gives an Ignite presentation at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering about her experience interning at a Presbyterian church in Yukutat, Alaska.

Fighting About Politics and Religion: Why Do We Do It?

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 Nanette Sawyer

“Even before I knew why she was criticizing me, I knew I disagreed with her…” This line got a laugh when I recently quoted it in a sermon. Perhaps people could identify with it; if I’m honest, I certainly can. No one likes to be criticized.

Author and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote these words in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He was describing the day his wife asked him to not put the dirty dishes on the counter where she prepares the baby food. His disagreement with her came before he even knew what she was going to say, because he wasn’t reacting with his rational mind, he was reacting with his instinctive need to self-protect. In a light tone he admits that he realized on that day that he was a chronic liar.

He’s not alone, of course; Haidt was using himself to explain the human tendency to want to defend our reputation or the reputation of our “group,” whatever that group may be in any given situation. It could be a sports team, a political party, a family, a religion — any group of which we are a part and which defines some aspect of our identity.

One of Haidt’s major points is that our sense of being right, our sense of moral righteousness, comes not from our rational mind, but from an instantaneous “intuition” or intuitive cognition. Our intuition is like an elephant that we ride — it’s large, powerful, and in control. Our strategic reasoning is like a small rider being carried around on the elephant trying to explain why the elephant is right (even when it’s not).

It’s easy to say that other people’s deeply held beliefs are irrational, but more difficult to admit that mine are irrational, too. Irrational doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, it just means that our moral judgment, our sense of what is right and wrong, happens instantaneously and unconsciously in a flash of intuitive cognition, influenced by prior experience and beliefs.

This changes how we might think about discussing religion and politics with people who differ from us. Giving people more and better “reasons” as to why our opinions are better than theirs will generally not lead to either party changing their perspective. To effectively engage with people who disagree with us means befriending the elephants, theirs and our own, and accruing new experiences so that our intuitions change.

In addition to recognizing that there are both elephants and riders in the room, Haidt outlines moral foundations theory and shows that self-identified liberal and conservative people make moral judgements based on different types of criteria. Six classic moral foundations are:

  1. Care / harm
  2. Fairness/ cheating
  3. Loyalty / betrayal
  4. Authority / subversion
  5. Sanctity / degradation
  6. Liberty /oppression

You can take a free test (start with the Moral Foundations Questionnaire) and see how you measure up at www.yourmorals.org.

Haidt’s book is smart and well-documented, but grounded in story telling that makes it easy to read and understand. I have found it incredibly helpful as I try to wend my way through complex relationships with people who disagree with me and with each other in profound ways. Jesus said, “how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4). Haidt’s book helps me take a look at the log in my eye.


Nanette Sawyer is a Presbyterian pastor who leads faith formation and small group ministries at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago. Nanette was the founding pastor of Grace Commons, a small emergent church formed in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. The author of Hospitality the Sacred Art (Skylight Paths, 2008), she feels called to guide people in spiritual practices that prepare us to be deeply rooted in God’s love and brave in extending that love to others.