Offering Words

I have always been impressed by the liturgy written by my friend and colleague, Jenny McDevitt. Those who attended the NEXT National Conference in Dalls (2012) will remember the beautiful and inspiring words offered in corporate worship. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people” yet I asked Jenny if she would be willing to write a blog about her process of crafting such communal experiences. I am grateful for her response and pray you receive the following as an offering. (Andrew Taylor-Troutman)

by Jenny McDevitt

I am weeks late in submitting this blog entry, in part because I have been unsure of how to respond. “Tell us how you write liturgy,” the request came. And so I have tried to put words to my process. Words that are slightly more helpful than what feels like the actual truth: I stare a blank computer screen and wait for a miracle to happen.

offering of wordsOn the off-chance the above-mentioned technique is not helpful to you, here are some additional possibilities.

Hear it

Whatever your scripture(s) for the day may be, read those words out loud. Seriously, out loud. I almost always catch something differently when I hear myself say it. Listen to the cadence. Catch unusually lovely (or just unusual) phrases. Ask questions of what is happening or being said, and let those questions shape the prayers and responses.

Tell it

Tell a story with your liturgy. Talking about grace? Remind us of moments of grace that began with creation and have happened ever since. Preaching about forgiveness? Craft a prayer with seven instances of shortcoming and then invoke Jesus’ beautiful, challenging, devastating, breathtaking words of seventy times seven. Wind the stories of the Bible with the stories of our culture and the stories of our lives. All of them speak to our experience. Not sure where to start? “In the beginning…”

Say it

Liturgy is meant to be spoken, so say it as you write it. I rarely write more than a sentence or two before reading it out loud. If a sentence is too long, if you stumble over some structure — cut it and begin again. While a complex sentence may read beautifully on paper, in liturgy it must also be easy on the ears. And take advantage of things that are pleasing — alliteration, repetition, patterns, effective uses of pauses and silence.

Say it (part two)

Has it been a hard week? Has something happened in your congregation that has broken your collective heart? Are your people angry? Does the scripture passage make no sense whatsoever? Does it seem to ask too much of us? Don’t be afraid to speak the honest truth in the liturgy. There’s nothing particularly holy about having all the answers or having the best theological vocabulary. Giving voice to the thoughts and emotions and questions running through your head may invite others to engage in the same way. It can be a gift. Careful warning: don’t forget the Good News. When lament is called for, lament away. But even the psalmist, who is a champion lament-er, always ends with a word of hope, however fragile it may be. And if it is one of those days when death is everywhere, speak resurrection. Give voice to the promise over and over. Put that hope into the air, let it hoover around you, and let it hold you (and your people) tight.

Rephrase it

Some friends disagree with this practice, but I often rephrase God’s words or Jesus’ words. Not because they need an editor, but because we need to hear them in as many ways as possible. I have often summarized the overall point (as best I understand it, anyway), and put it in my own language, even going so far as to say, for instance, “And in response, Jesus simply says, ‘Knock it off.’” Never once has someone come to me, confused about whether or not the bible actually reports it that exact way.

Related note: it’s also very effective to occasionally lift up what Jesus doesn’t say. That can be just as helpful. Case in point:

God doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who are of perfect pedigree and rosy cheeks, you who have done no wrong and you whose hearts are entirely intact.” God doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who have it all together, you who have never said a hateful word and you who wake up every day with all the answers.” God does not say that. What God does say is, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What God does say, over and over again, is, “Come to me, all you who are broken and battered, faulty and frail, disappointed and disappointing. Come to me. You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

Unpolish it

I’ve inferred this all along, but it’s still worth saying: write your liturgy carefully, prayerfully, and honestly . . . and then unpolish it. This means two things. First, be sure your liturgy doesn’t sound too smooth. Too certain. Too easy. Too much like “everyone here has it all together.” Because let’s be honest: that’s incredibly unattractive. Not to mention totally untrue. And second (remembering that these are my guidelines and not necessarily yours), occasionally depart from tried and true words of tradition, perhaps the fancy-pants, five-syllable, theological-dictionary language. Or, if you’re going to use those five-syllable words, use much easier words to explain those concepts. In other words, don’t get hung up on sounding professionally, profoundly pious. Just focus on sounding real. Remember, things that are too polished can be slippery and hard to hang on to.

Believe it

If you lead worship with the same intonation you use when you ask someone to pass the green beans, I’m not going to be convinced you have any idea what’s so good about the Good News. Does this mean crazy-cheesy-fake-happy all the time? No, thank you. Let your voice match the truth of your words, whether it’s sad, elated, lost, or grateful. You’re proclaiming the Gospel even through your liturgy. For heaven’s sake (and all of ours), say it like you mean it.

Here’s an example from Easter, since, as it turns out, I’m better at writing liturgy than writing about writing liturgy.

In the beginning of all days

In the very beginning

It was dark

And chaos hovered over the earth

And you, O God, spoke a word

And light crept in from the corners

And creation began to dance


In the beginning of this day

In the earliest morning hours

It was dark

And chaos hovered over the earth and in our hearts

And you, O God, spoke a word

And light crept in from an empty tomb

And creation began to dance


The word, in both cases, was life

Your word, in all cases, is life


He is risen

Christ is risen


And yet, God,

even as we rejoice and sing and celebrate

we realize for many, the shadows of life have not faded in the morning sun


So we pray your peace for those who laugh and sing

and for those who sit and weep


We pray your peace for those who chase Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies

and for those who chase broken dreams or unrealistic expectations


We pray your peace for those who place flowers on a cross this morning

and for those who stare at flowers from a hospital bed this afternoon


We pray your peace for those who believe in the power of the resurrection

and yet face another day without a loved one


Peace be with you, Jesus says

Peace be with you, Jesus promises

Look at me, he says

I know what it is to hurt


He entered our story so well, God

He entered our story and changed the world

That’s Easter

So help us enter his story

And change the world yet again

That would be Easter, too, wouldn’t it?


Help us to be a people whose very lives speak this truth:

death is not the last word

violence is not the last word

hate is not the last word

condemnation is not the last word

betrayal is not the last word

failure is not the last word

No: each of them are like rags left behind in a tomb,

and from that tomb,

you come.*


Speaking, showing, sharing life


Help us do the same, won’t you?

Help us be your tangible proof to the world

That would be no less an Easter miracle


Creation began in a dance, O God,

and you have made us to sparkle in the sun

So help us get there


Trusting you will, and placing our lives in the hands of Life Eternal,

we pray as he taught us, saying:

Our Father . . .


* Words in italics are borrowed, with gratitude, from Brian McLaren’s Prayer for Pastors. (When you stumble across good words, use them (with attribution at least in printed form). Good words are always worth repeating.

McDevittJenny has been serving alongside the people of Village Church since September of 2012. She loves the way the church cares for one another and for the community, giving great attention to any and all issues of the heart. She loves stories (listening and telling) and believes that questions are an essential part of faith. Originally from Michigan, Jenny is a graduate of Kenyon College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. She has served churches in Ann Arbor and Virginia Beach. She lives with her dog, Reilly, who is dedicated to chasing the squirrels of Prairie Village.

Social Media and Ministry

coffee and mediaFrom Tahrir Square to grandma’s pie recipe, more and more of life is happening online. MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Adam Walker Cleaveland hosted a webinar conversation about social media and ministry.

Listen here. See Adam’s slides here.

MaryAnn is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs. She blogs at and is Co-Chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Adam is associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, Oregon. He thinks and writes about technology and faith. He blogs at

Red Light, Green Light

By Lori Raible

Let me go ahead and get this out there: I’m one of those people who texts at red lights. You honk at me when the light turns green. Save your breath, I know the danger. I’m working on it. In the meantime, I still congratulate myself for not texting while the wheels are spinning. You see, I am in recovery from an overbooked, maxed-out, unintentional, energy-sucking schedule.

traffic lightsLast year, while I was still too busy to realize how isolated I had become, a friend invited me to help organize a NEXT Church conference for our region. Good thing for him, I unintentionally said YES and joined a few other (seemingly more balanced) folks. Good thing for me, God tends to make something transformative and holy out of the jumbled mess we offer up.

How is it, as church leaders we serve as catalysts for relationships and builders of community on behalf of God’s children, yet so often neglect our own need to be connected with one another as God’s gathered people?

Within the span of a few months, our motley planning team came to know and lean on one another in unexpected ways. The small group collectively endured: a cross-country move, two pending babies, a new career, children woes, serious illnesses, and the “usual” gifts and responsibilities of ministry. Yet by the power of the Holy Spirit, together we created a space to celebrate and worship a God that repeats to us over and over again:

Fear not, I AM with you.    

God really would have been the best at Twitter. Even if I had received that text directly from God, I’d have missed the point.

Honestly, as concerned as I am about the future of the PC(USA), I get tired of hearing the complaints. Numbers and money and ‘NONEs,’ property and politics and policies . . . it’s all critical and messy work. I am as committed to that transformative process as you are. Re-creation is always messy.

But, if we forget God’s promise, if we forget to hold fast to the rich story,

of whom we have always been, and whom we are called to be,

if we expect God to show up on our handhelds between appointments and deadlines,

then we will surely miss what God has in store for us NEXT.

NEXT Church has reminded me that its best to put the phone down and drive, with humble intentions, to the place where I can look my Christian brothers and sisters in the eyes, the place where we can share and celebrate the joy and passion of being called together as Christ’s Church. NEXT Church is the place we say to one another, “Fear not, I AM with you.”

LoriLori Raible has served Selwyn Avenue as an associate pastor since 2009, but has been on the staff since 2007. Having graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005, Lori enjoys staying connected to the seminary community as she is able. Lori graduated from Wake Forest University where she ran track and cross-country before embarking on a sales career. She met her husband Rob along the way, and they have two children who love to run the halls of Selwyn, Joe (7) and Maeve (6). Lori is active in the NEXT Church Community, has served as a conference leader at Montreat Conference Center, and was selected as fellow for the interfaith clergy program at the Chatauqua Institute in 2010. Lori enjoys writing, running, photography, and sneaking away to Charleston with her husband when they can.

Ripe “Old” Age

By Katherine Kerr

Age has been on my mind lately.  No doubt that is partly due to the fact that, at 41, I am expecting my first child this summer.  But it also has to do with the relative youth of the pastoral staff at the church I serve.  With a Senior Pastor at the ripe old age of 36, I am the eldest (by three months) of our four pastors.  Not a week goes by that we don’t hear about this from our church members and others.  The comments are usually very positive, along the lines of, “We love that we have such a young staff!” But I realize such remarks are somewhat surprising in a society in which 40 is not usually considered young.

Katherine blogAge once again came into focus for me last month at the annual NEXT Church gathering.  In the midst of greeting old friends and meeting new ones, I couldn’t help but notice the relative youth of the crowd.  For a gathering of Presbyterians (outside of Montreat), the average age was noticeably on the low side.  College and seminary students mingled happily with first call pastors and seasoned veterans.  It was a sight to see.

My feelings about it were reflected in the words of another forty-something participant who laughed and said she felt old.  And we both realized that wasn’t a bad thing at all.

While youth is famously idealized in our culture, it has been looked down upon in the church.  In the stately, tradition-oriented PC(USA), we have often assumed that the wisdom from accumulated years is the only voice truly worth heeding.  And experience is important, I might add.  We would not be who or where we are today were it not for the wisdom of the elders (Ruling, Teaching, and otherwise) who came before us.

But this kind of thinking can be, well, antiquated.

Put more positively, there is an impressive and formidable surge of energy coming from the younger population of Presbyterians, and those of us who are counting gray hairs and fretting about retirement savings would be well-served to pay closer attention to what they have to say.  Though it may be disorienting, each generation has its own preconceptions, proclivities, and propositions which are vitally important to us all.

If we as a denomination are serious about what’s next, we need to listen to the younger voices in our midst.  If we are serious about the priesthood of all believers, then we must act like it.  We must recognize that every voice in our congregations and presbyteries and denomination has value.  Age is not an automatic mark of wisdom, nor youth of naivete.

Let me be clear that respecting younger generations does not have to come at the cost of disregarding the older generations.  As the church of Jesus Christ in twenty-first century America, we have enough challenges ahead of us, such as cultural, economic, and ecclesial battles to name a few. We do not need to add generational battles too.  We are all in this together, and we should start acting like it.  We may have differing ideas about worship styles and clerical garb, sermon prep practices and models for ministry, but when it comes down to it, we are all for the same thing – to worship and serve the Lord.  And there’s no minimum or maximum age for that.

Katherine_webThe Reverend Katherine C. Kerr began work as Associate Minister for Pastoral Care and Congregational Life in January 2008. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Katherine is a graduate of Davidson College. She holds a Master of Counseling degree from Wake Forest University and a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Prior to attending seminary, Katherine worked in the nonprofit sector and also in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Ordained in 2005, she served as Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi, before returning to Charlotte. Noticing a lack of therapists and counselors in the Uptown, she was instrumental in the start of a center city satellite site of the Presbyterian Samaritan Center.

Lunch for the Soul: Building Community and the Missional Church (webinar recording)

Thinking about how to serve your neighbors? Wondering how your church can become more missional? Pondering what it means to create meaningful spiritual community in this day and age? Join us for a conversation about Lunch for the Soul. Since 2006, every Wednesday at noon Lunch for the Soul has provided the day laborers in the community with a hot, nutritious meal and a Spanish worship service. The pastors from Trinity Presbyterian, Oakbrook Church, and Riverside Presbyterian  provide the spiritual food while teams of volunteers from Trinity and Riverside Presbyterian Churches prepare and provide the meals.  Anywhere from 40-180 people come weekly to be fed in spirit, in community and in body.
Listen to the audio recording here. Click here to see the accompanying slideshow.
Edwin Andrade born in Guatemala, grew up in LA, now co-pastor of Riverside Church in Sterling, VA
Rebecca Messman from southwest Virginia, served as a Young Adult Volunteer of the PCUSA in Guatemala, now Associate Pastor in Herndon, VA.
Together, they provide the pastoral leadership for Lunch for the Soul.


Dear friends,

As we wrestle with tragedy as individuals, congregations, and the larger church, please receive these pastoral and prophetic words from Marcia Mount Shoop as an offering. Personally I read her insights as an experience of worship; may it be so for you as well.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman



Where Is My Place at NEXT?

by Helen Wilkins

As a sophomore at Presbyterian College who’s majoring in Christian Education and excited to follow a calling into ministry, the question “What’s NEXT?” is extremely relevant to me. I am a pastor’s kid, so I have grown up being very active in the church and I have had a deep love for the church and the PCUSA in particular for as long as I can remember. I have to admit, when I looked at the schedule for NEXT events, I was more than a little excited to see that the national conference would fall nicely in my Spring Break and was conveniently close to my college. My anticipation grew as I saw friends I have met through the years who would be in Charlotte as well. I drove to Charlotte Sunday and had a great opportunity to meet with seminary students for dinner, conversation, and a movie. After being at the conference for less than two hours, I was already eager for the making of new friends and the strengthening of old, for worship, and for continued discussion of the future of the PCUSA.

I woke up early Monday morning, eager for the conference to start and to talk about what’s NEXT. As I walked into the fellowship hall I was immediately overwhelmed with the amount of people and I quickly remembered just how introverted I actually am. Suddenly, the idea of talking with people at this conference about the church, religion, the future became much more intimidating because I could not help but to think that I was one of the youngest, and consequently, most inexperienced people in this large crowd of people. I wondered to myself about why I thought I should be a part of this conversation, what I thought I could possibly bring to the table.

In the midst of my uncertainties about my place at the conference, I made my way into the sanctuary before worship because I had been asked, along with some other college and seminary students, to help lead the congregation in the Call to Worship and Prayer of Confession. As a part of this, we were asked to spread out among the congregation. I found myself sandwiched in the middle of the pew between two total and complete strangers who were each at least 40 years my senior and who were not exceptionally talkative (but were very nice). As I stood in the pew, silently wondering why I wasn’t spending my Spring Break in my much neglected bed, the music leaders began to play a very familiar song. Within the first few notes of “The Canticle of the Turning,” the very kind women sitting next to me and I simultaneously grabbed each other’s arms and shrieked, with excitement that rivaled a 13-year old girl at a boy-band concert, “OH MY GOSH I LOVE THIS SONG!” In that moment, as we laughed about our over-enthusiasm about singing a beloved song I realized how much this small little interaction spoke volumes on what’s NEXT and on what’s now.

As the conference continued I had many opportunities to talk with people, to share ideas, and to create friendships. I remembered that one of the reasons I have always loved the church is for the fellowship and conversation with people of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. Through the conversations and workshops I participated in throughout the conference I was able to talk with people and have my opinion and my ideas valued. When I think about what’s NEXT, I think about these conversations where I talked with people who had been pastors for 30 years or more, but how they still cared about what I had to say. I think about how I was able to listen to someone explain what she was seeing as a DCE in a church and how I could then offer something about what I am seeing as a college student. This conference reminded me that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we are meant to love one another and cherish each others’ opinions. Together, as members of the body of Christ, we work with each other, respect each other, encourage each other, and care for each other, because we are meant to be disciples with each other, and work in partnership with each other, not separate ourselves when we may not have many things in common. This is something that we often forget, so I am very grateful that I see it coming up in the discussion of what’s NEXT and is something that I have seen come into fruition, especially at the National Conference.

There’s no one person who can come and talk to us about exactly where the PCUSA will be 5 years from now and how we need to change or stay the same, but instead it is up to each and every one of us to be a part of the conversation and help discern where God is calling us. We are all children of God and are equally valued and we each have something unique and vital to bring to the table. At the beginning of the conference, I was uncertain about what my role in this discussion of what’s NEXT in the church could really be, but I was soon reminded that, despite my inexperience and insecurities, I am blessed by a denomination that respects and loves me, by an opportunity to talk with old and new friends about the church we love, and by the Holy Spirit that fills our conversations, prayers, and worship as we talk together about what God has in store for our future together.

HelenHelen Wilkins is a Christian Education major at Presbyterian College. She is currently a sophomore and plans to pursue her calling to ministry after she graduates.

The Most of These

by Kim McNeill

Last week, with the help of dedicated youth advisors, I took a group of middle schoolers from University Presbyterian to Washington, DC for a spring break service trip to learn about homelessness and poverty. They met, befriended, and served those who are currently facing the hard realities of life on the street.

Our youth are as blissful and sheltered as any 12-14 year olds. They are dedicated to church and youth group but know little about what it means to live out their faith in the world. In DC, our youth spent an evening with Andre who is currently homeless and Eric who has struggled with homelessness for much of his life. Our young people were shocked when they heard just how easy it was for Eric and Andre to become homeless. They were appalled to hear what they each go through living on the street. They were saddened to learn how cruel others can be to those who have so little.

As they talked with Eric and Andre, I witnessed their stereotypes of “the least of these” shatter right before my very eyes. By getting to know these two incredible guys, homelessness became less of a problem to be solved by adults. Homelessness became their problem to face head on because it was happening to their new friends. After connecting with Eric and Andre, these sheltered youth served in the city with new eyes. Those in line for meatballs and mashed potatoes weren’t just an issue, they were people, children of God, with gifts and personalities just like those middle school youth. In hearing Eric’s and Andre’s stories, they learned that human connection and seeing the image of God in others is the first step in serving one another and living out their faith. I can’t help but think that our youth need more of this in the NEXT church: more opportunities to truly connect with those in need and more occasions to have their blissful ignorance wiped away with powerful, personal conversations.

Attending to the needs of our youth workers is vital if we want our churches to offer such life-altering and faith forming experiences to our young people. Supporting and enabling youth workers is the one of the best gifts a church can give its youth. Churches must equip youth workers with educational opportunities in scripture, theology, and psychology so they are best able to put new experiences and conversations with “the least of these” in the context of a young person’s developing faith. Our continuing education should help youth workers understand how to stop over-planning and start trusting the Holy Spirit (especially when structure and planning helps us youth workers keep our sanity on many days). Congregations must support Sabbath-keeping for our youth workers. In the midst of irregular schedules and instant access via texting and the internet, youth workers need to experience a holy Sabbath rest to have the energy to encourage and support youth in new and challenging situations. As a church community we must continue to find ways to connect youth workers to one another for companionship and support from those who understand where they are coming from.

As we live into the NEXT church, how will you and your congregation encourage, support and sustain your volunteer and paid youth workers? What supporting role will you play in helping our youth have the powerful experience of being the church in the world?

kimKim McNeill is the Staff Associate for Youth and Congregational Life at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC where she’s served for over five years. Prior to that, Kim worked in Presbyterian Camp and Conference Ministry. This summer she’ll enjoy the gift of her first Sabbatical, something she thinks all those in ministry need to stay spiritually healthy and energized for the work before us.

Youth Ministry in the NEXT Church

Here’s a story about a small world. At a youth retreat I organized with some friends last fall, I got accused of stealing the idea for my go-to youth group game. My friend Erik claimed to have invented it while he was an Associate Pastor in South Carolina. He marched up to my table at lunch with a crowd of my students in tow. Erik’s a reasonable grown up person, but my students were itchin’ for a fight.

“Where’d you get Grog?” he demanded. My youth grinned and bounced on their toes. They’d been telling him about the game over Sloppy Joe’s before he leapt from his seat to confront me. It’s a question with a very simple answer, though. I gave it. “Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog. Why?”

He proceeded to insist that the game, which involves youth trying to locate and put together a disassembled flashlight in a darkened sanctuary before another player (the Grog) can tag them all, was his invention and that the way we played it—and even what we called it—was all wrong.

“It’s actually called ‘Gorgon,’ he scoffed.” Also, the Grog—er, Gorgon–is not a youth but a robed up pastor who leaps out to scare the bejeezus out of unconfirmed teens.

I pleaded innocence. I really had found the game on Cleaveland’s blog in 2009 in an enduring (if not grandiose) post chronicling the “20 All Time Best Youth Group Games” ( I’d been playing Cleaveland’s version for three years.

The episode (Gorgongate?) illustrates something important about youth ministry in the NEXT church. Sharing, for example. I’m eager to be part of a youth ministry community that shares resources, best practices, counsel, and encouragement. I’ve wrung lots of mileage from old Youth Specialties games books, but I’m not half as committed to them as I am to Grog. The dispute over authorship only makes me love it more.

The NEXT youth ministry shares material of its own making, though, which distinguishes it from a ministry that relies on expertly-published curriculum. Curriculum isn’t going away—nor should it—but youth workers in coming years will have to flex their creative contextual muscles more than they follow someone else’s instructions. Where we’re not creating our own stuff, at least we should be engaging a content-creating community, locally or through social media. After all, that’s how I found Grog. It’s also where I’m closely following John Vest’s public re-working of his confirmation curriculum (

Finally, collaboration will be the NEXT norm. The most interesting work I’m doing these days I’m doing with a collective of youth workers and pastors including Erik and his wife Millason. Given a few hundred more words I could wax eloquent about Paul Knopf, Becca Bateman, Kat Blasetti, Erin Thomas, Jason Griffice, Reece Lemmon, and John McKellar. But I’ll limit myself here to a brief mention of the two retreats we’ve run together and the third summer service week for junior high students we’re planning. That’s a crew of youth ministry heavy hitters. I can’t say what we’ll do next, only that we’ll be making it up together and sharing it as we go.

RockyRocky Supinger is the Associate Pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, California, a call he’s had for five years. Prior to coming to California, Rocky served a small church in Grandview, Missouri, as its Solo Pastor for three years. He is married to Meredith Clayton and the father of “Baby Girl” Laura (5). He foolishly loves the Kansas City Royals.

What New Ministers Need

by George Anderson

“I went to Law School to learn Law.  I learned how to practice Law after I joined a law practice.”  Robert Ballou, a lawyer in the church I serve, said this to show that he understood when I said the same thing about ministry.  While I can’t imagine anyone enjoying and appreciating seminary more than I did, I learned the practice of ministry serving in the church under the guidance of other ministers and laypeople who shared wisdom from their disciplines.  Because certain aspects of a vocational practice are best learned while immersed in the practice itself, the focus of continuing education right out of seminary should shift from identity to practice, from theory to skills.

For me, much of that practical learning was “on the job” and not at continuing education events because I was blessed with gifted ministers and laypeople who offered me nurture and support.   However, many new ministers do not have, and do not know where to find, such a network of support.  A shocking number leave the ministry before the fifth anniversary of their ordination.

Bothered by the rough start many have in ministry, I began to notice that most continuing education events for newly ordained ministers carry on the seminary project of focusing on pastoral identity over pastoral practice and do not use parish pastors and laypeople as leaders.  The lack of practical education becomes a problem when a congregation expects the ministers they call to already know how to deal with staffing issues, read a budget, raise funds, develop leaders, guide a church in long range planning, and manage competing interests.

Thanks to a fund for theological education, Second Presbyterian Church and Union Presbyterian Seminary have been able to offer one model for how practical skills can be shared in a continuing education setting.  The sixth Kittye Susan Trent Symposium for Newly Ordained Ministers was held at Second Presbyterian Church this past March.  The symposium is five and a half days that begin with worship and lead to seminars that focus on practice.  To enhance peer mentoring, the group is limited to eight participants each year.  The schedule includes times for rest and play.   Ken McFayden, a Union Presbyterian Seminary professor, and two experienced pastors, Ed McLeod of Raleigh’s First Presbyterian Church and I, guide the symposium and lead some of the seminars.  The rest of the seminars are offered by other experienced pastors or laypeople.

Imagine a day focused on finances where Ed McLeod talks about effective stewardship; Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University, talks about fund raising; Joe Miller, head of his own construction company and our church treasurer, talks about financial interpretation; Phil Boggs, Church Administrator, talks about budgeting and tracking funds; and, Steven Waskey a financial planner, talks about the minister’s personal finances.  Such is one day of the symposium.

“I don’t think a day goes by where I do not reference in some way to something I picked up at the symposium,” says Dean Pogue, a first year participant who calls on various seminar leaders regularly.  “The symposium provided some things I didn’t know I needed.  Now I know what to look for,” said Caroline Jinkins who participated this year.   All the feedback received has been similarly positive and grateful.  At the recent NEXT Conference in Charlotte, I ran into many former participants who told me again how much the symposium has meant for their ministries.  Because the nurture of new pastors has become a passion of my ministry, hearing these reports makes me deeply thankful for the symposium.   My favorite quote was spoken tongue-in-cheek by Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes who last year said to Ed and me, “Thank you for teaching us what we need to know to someday take your jobs.”  We laughed, but that is precisely why Ed and I have been doing this.  I have heard it said that the church needs my generation to “get out of the way” in order to find what’s next.   That’s true, as it is with every generation, but, first, we have some great stuff to pass on.

I am not suggesting that what is done at Second Presbyterian can be exactly replicated.  I do suggest that the components which make the symposium such a helpful experience for new ministers can be sought out elsewhere.  A sabbatical devoted to studying programs for newly ordained ministers led me to believe that in addition to spiritual disciplines of worship, reflection and prayer, these are the components most needed by new ministers: mentors to emulate, coaches to instruct, trusted peers with whom to share and learn, laypeople who are willing to teach what they know, exposure to “best practices,” and teaching congregations (either where one serves or where one can visit).  Not all governing bodies can provide these components, and fewer can provide them well.   Also, intangibles such as right leadership, chemistry among participants, quality materials, and accountability need to be in place, or even the best constructed program will bomb.  However, ministers on their own or as groups can seek out some or all of these components, and keep after it till what nurtures and sustains is found.

To illustrate how it can be so, the Associate Pastor at  the church I serve, Elizabeth Howell, organizes three overnight retreats a year  for new pastors within our presbytery where the first day is devoted to the kind  of seminars offered by the symposium and the second day is devoted to the  participants mentoring each other.  Under the direction of one of the participants, Andrew Taylor-Troutman,  the group is now meeting additionally for lectionary study and sermon  preparation.  This is the kind of  local and organic connecting that is encouraged by the NEXT Church  movement. 

What can be done for new ministers where you serve?

levelREVDr. George Anderson is a graduate of St. Andrews University (’81) and Union Presbyterian Seminary (’85).  He served in Kingsport, TN and Jackson, MS before becoming in 1998 the Head of Staff at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA.  He is married to Millie and they have three grown daugthers; Paige, Rachel and Virginia.  The symposium discussed in this blog was made possible by a fund established by John Trent, a widower, in memory of his only child, Kittye Susan Trent, who died from complications from a lifetime medical issue.  He left his estate to Second Presbyterian Church for the purpose of promoting theological education.  The first Kittye Susan Trent Symposium for Newly Ordained Ministers was held in 2008.  The names of past participants can be found at: