Not One-Size-Fits-All

By Tom Are, Jr

togetherIt didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had eighteen years of experience in ministry that all of a sudden felt like one year eighteen times.  What happened?

Part of it was I was raised in the church “of olden days” and found my self in a post-Christendom, post-institutional, post-community-oriented, post-I-know-what-I’m-doing culture. Diagnose it with the help of Phyllis Tickle and her rummage sales or Harvey Cox and his “Age of the Spirit” or Robert Putnam and his “aftershocks” or Landon Whitsitt and his “open source” life—-find your diagnostician du jour. How ever you talk about it, the culture has changed and the church has not changed enough.  I wasn’t afraid; but I was still (and often am still) confused.

But my confusion was fed by something far less abstract and less global than cultural change: I was in a new context for ministry. I discovered with the greatest clarity I had experienced: ministry in not a one size fits all calling.  I heard in seminary that I was to be a Theologian In Residence. My job was to speak the language of the faith, interpret the tradition, walk with the people in a way that together we discover how to view our lives and our world through the lens of the gospel.  I love that. I think that is a grand and glorious calling.  But now the congregation is large enough that Session members need table tents so that they can call one another by name. In this context, my theology matters, but so does organizational leadership.  So I reached back to my seminary training to dust off my notes from all those organizational leadership classes that I took.  And of course I found zip! Nothing.

That’s a good thing. We have been called to ministry in a time where the landscape is shifting and the work is so diverse that there are many vital aspects of ministry that cannot, and I would argue should not, be taught in seminary.  Why? Because we are our best teachers for each other.

I called three friends who were engaged in ministry in similar contexts and I begged (not kidding) them for a 12 hour day to shadow, to talk strategy and practice and to learn how others spent their time.  Later, much to my surprised, they asked if I would return the favor. We then committed to meet together once a year for several days to share case studies, to vent frustrations, to pray and to remind one another why we are called to our particular ministries.  I wouldn’t say this small group of colleagues saved my life, but they did save a quality of life that I value.

I am an evangelist for cohort groups now—all kinds. Some study the lectionary. Some share spiritual practices. Some just nourish friendship to beat back the loneliness of this work.  But this particular group existed as a “steel sharpening steel” group to quote Stephen Covey. We shared what was working and what was not. Most of the ideas shared were not repeated elsewhere (although some were). But the conversation served to feed creative thought; to spark imaginations.

This kind of cohort is easy to organize. Look around for a few friends who share ministry in a similar context: urban or small church or college town or downtown or large church or dying church or new church or….you get the picture. And then decide who you would like to be in conversation with and invite them to meet. Then see what the spirit does in your own imagination.

Are 1aTom Are, Jr. is Senior Pastor of Village Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. 

photo credit: »breanna via photopin cc

Wander with Human Heart

By Ken Kovacs

Author’s Note: At a recent Service of Ordination for my friend Erin Counihan, I was asked to give the charge to the pastor. Erin graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in May and has a received a call from the Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO. While the charge was written with her in mind, spoken to her, I was struck by the way it resonated with many others at the service, particularly the other pastor-types.  And so, with Erin’s permission, this is for anyone trying to discern God’s call for his or her life. To be baptized is to be called.

From a Service of Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament
Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church, Dickeyville, Baltimore, MD

 6th July 2014

Erin, as you know, everything that we’re about here this afternoon is not about you. Your ordination, this worship service…it’s not really about you. We are here celebrating God’s call in your life, the acknowledgement of that call, the journey that led to this place and time: called, led, and guided by the Holy Spirit. We are here to witness, to say that God is still calling God’s people to preach, to teach, to love, and to serve. All that we’re doing here today is not really about you. It’s what God has done and is doing and will continue to do in you and through you.

And yet, if it weren’t for you—your connection to Dickey Memorial, to Baltimore Presbytery, to Princeton Seminary, your connection to your particular family and to this gathering of friends—if we didn’t know you, we wouldn’t be here today, but somewhere else on this holiday weekend. While it’s not ultimately about you, at some deep level it’s all about you—all of you.

Who you are matters, matters ultimately to God. God’s call is never made in general; it’s always particular. I remember professor J. Christiaan Beker, at Princeton Seminary, saying, “God’s Word is always a Word on target.” It’s pointed. Directed. While there’s a general or common calling for humanity to serve God, our particular sense of vocation, what we individually feel summoned by God to do, is never directed to something or someone “in general.”

God has called you. And it’s to you—all of you, who you really, authentically are. All of you—not just the Master of Divinity part of you, not just the PresbyGeek part of you, not just the “religious” or “Christian” or spiritual part of you. God summons all of you, the totality of your being, both spirit and body, both who you think you are, consciously, as well as the part of you that is unconscious, unknown to you but known to God, and still part of you. God’s call is to all of you.

Why is all of this important? Because in ministry it’s so easy to lose your soul. It’s so easy to lose yourself—and not in a good way. Far too many ministers meld their identities with their public roles or personas, and then they begin to believe they are their personas (the masks they present to the world), which is deadly for ministry—both for the minister and for the church. That’s how you lose your soul.

Far too many ministers conflate their identities with the congregations they serve; some begin to think they are their congregations, which is also deadly for ministry—both for the minister and for the church. That’s how you lose your soul.

installationI charge you, Erin, to remember your baptismal identity, remember who you are, who you really are, in the eyes of your Lord. Don’t let the church tell you—the church doesn’t know who you are and it has no authority to do so. Don’t let the pastor persona tell you who you are. We all have personas, but wear yours lightly. Hold on to and preserve those parts that are uniquely you. The Spirit hasn’t called you to live out a persona, but to live from the deepest core of who you are, to bring your experience to your call—everything. Your history, your experiences of ecstatic joy and love and the deepest, rawest pain in your heart and soul and body—all that you are, use your unique and particular perception of reality and then bring it all to bear upon the way you tell the story of God’s love.

That’s what God wants from you. That’s what God calls forth from within you. Not just for you—but for the world. Your life then becomes part of the ongoing incarnation of the Divine Logos—not only your life, but also the life of every soul in the cosmos. English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) asked, “But for I am a woman, should I therefore live that I should not tell you the goodness of God?”[1]  The answer? Of course not. You must tell. You—Erin.

Julian also said, “The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”[2] You, Erin, are one who lives gladly—for this, too, is part of who you are. Don’t allow the church to make you too serious. (This from someone who is probably too serious.) The great theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) once said, “It is not wise to be too serious.”[3] (Sounds odd coming from someone like Barth, but he knew how to be playful.)

Be sure to save your silly side, the part that doesn’t take yourself or others too seriously, the part that can laugh and smile and take delight in silly things. You need a sense of humor in ministry. I have a friend who often says, “God is hilarious.” God is. You have to have a sense of humor in ministry, because, in case you haven’t heard, there are a lot of silly things that go on in the life of the church. Some days all you’ll want to do is cry. But sometimes all you can do is laugh. The ability to laugh, the presence of laughter are signs of health, for individuals, for pastors, for churches. The evangelical writer Steve Brown is on to something when he says, “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis.”[4]

When you remember that God’s call is not to only a part of you, but to all of you, you will trust and cherish your experience and from your own experience reach out to the world in love. Honoring your experience—what God has done and is doing through your life—will help you honor what God is doing in the lives of the people you serve. They, too, will come to honor their lives—and that is an extraordinary gift to offer someone! To help someone recognize, honor, cherish, celebrate what God is doing in and through one’s life—that’s is an amazing gift to give someone.

The brilliant psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961), whom I read a lot these days, child of a Reformed minister, a child of the manse, once gave this advice to anyone thinking about being a psychiatrist. There are striking parallels here to what it means to be a minister, a minister who’s not afraid to search for God in the depths of human experience. Writing in 1916, Jung said:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology.  [One] would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away [the] scholar’s gown, bid farewell to [one’s] study, and wander with human heart through the world.  There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in [one’s] own body, s/he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give…, and [she] will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.[5]

Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? You will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul. There was a time when ministers were known first as physicians of the soul. In order to do that, you have to know yourself, you have to know who you are and whose you are.

I charge you, Erin, to “wander with human heart through [God’s] world,” to draw from the depths of your experience as you help, by God’s grace, heal the wounds of God’s people and offer hope.


Ken KovacsKen Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD. He has served churches in New Jersey and Scotland and is the author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (2011).  He blogs at On the Way.





[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter vi.

[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love.

[3] Karl Barth, Table Talk, ed. John D. Godsey (Edinburgh, 1963), 16-17.

[4] Steve Brown, Approaching God: Accepting the Invitation to Stand in the Presence of God (New York: Howard Books, 2008), 198.

[5]Carl Jung, “New Paths in Psychology,” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 7, para. 409 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).



The Community – An Example of a Colleague Group

By Fairfax Fair

community 300Ministry is an interesting paradox. We are called to serve the people of God.  We are engaged in service with a group of people with whom we share our ministries.  We Presbyterians even celebrate our connectionalism!  Yet ministry is often lonely and even isolating.  I have been part of a colleague group for about ten years.  It is a life-giving group that furthers and renews my life and ministry.  We gather twice each year (fall and spring), taking turns to host one another in our place of ministry, and it is some of the best time of my year.  We are a group of about 24 pastors, both men and women, and we serve in diverse settings all across the country.  We all head multi-staff congregations and share freely with one another from our experiences.  We are not a support group but we support one another through good and through barren times.

Our meetings begin on Sunday evenings and run through noon on Wednesday, with an optional round of golf that afternoon.  Each of our meetings includes a mix of theological study/reflection, the experience of something particular to our meeting place (a visit to the Cleveland Clinic, the Pentagon, an inner city ministry), and time spent doing something — often outdoors — we ordinarily don’t do (riding segways, paddling kayaks, hiking through a natural forest, throwing a football around in Michigan Stadium).  We share meals, laughter, and sometimes tears.  The host pastor plans a great agenda for our time together and we always learn a lot and have a great time.  The best part, however, is getting together with colleagues who have grown to be friends, sharing about our lives and our ministries with people we trust and can depend on.

As a group we have decided on set “dues,” payable to the host pastor whether or not we can attend a particular meeting.  These cover the cost of all activities — including meals — during our three days together.  We are giving the option of staying with host families from the congregation or in a local motel (at our own expense).

Between meetings we keep in touch by e-mail.  When a question comes up for one of us, it is usual to send an e-mail around to the group, soliciting ideas, advice, and resources on which to draw.  Our ministry settings are all different, but people are the same everywhere.  My colleague group is great for bouncing ideas around, testing the water, and gaining insights into what has worked or not worked.  We throw around tactics to try and plans that have failed.  We share ideas for a sermon series, classes, book studies, and officer training.  We debrief General Assembly and big events and issues in the country and the world.  We share news from our presbyteries and always keep our eyes open for good colleagues to join our staffs and recommend to other churches seeking strong leaders.

One of the keys to this group’s “success” is the expectation that — barring a major crisis — attending our twice yearly meetings is a priority.  I use continuing education time to gather with my group.  We all are busy people with many responsibilities, but the only way to form community is to be together on a regular basis, building relationships through time and experiences shared.   If a person is consistently absent, we talk with them about giving up their spot to someone else.  I give being in a colleague group my highest recommendation. It is renewing, refreshing, challenging, and the church at its best!


Rev Dr Fairfax F FairFairfax F. Fair is Pastor/Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor Michigan, a thriving congregation that serves the University of Michigan, has a Resident Minister program, and extensive local and international ministry partnerships. 

Papers, Colleagues and Christian Fellowship

By Kathryn Johnston

“I’m just here for the papers.”

papersI said that to my cohort group at one of our early gatherings. We began in 2008 based on an existing  model. A group of pastors from around the country gather together once a year bringing with them two papers each. These papers are based on the Sunday lectionary readings for the upcoming year. A finely tuned schedule through the week guides the group as the papers are presented and discussed in 20 minute segments with the benefit of everyone going home with a huge stash of resources for the upcoming preaching year.

But that’s not all…

Our group began with the instigators inviting one person each and then having that person invite someone else. I was on the outer layer of invitees and so when I arrived at our first gathering I knew only one person. That was hard. Our first evening together was spent at someone’s home and folks naturally split into those who knew one another from one seminary in the south in one room and folks who knew one another from another seminary in the south in another room. I was the only one from the seminary in the northeast.

It was awkward.

I didn’t blame them. We all know how much we miss those seminary connections once we get out into the cold, cruel world of ministry. The cohort group is a great way to have your continuing education budget legitimately pay for a reunion. And this group was incredibly welcoming. I remember how surprised I was when I had slept through dinner and everyone had made sure there was food left for me.

But still… the main reason we were together was to work on the lectionary texts for the upcoming year. And so as we were having one of our logistics meetings about where we would meet the following year and whether we should create more free time and who else should be invited to join us I found the opportunity to say, “I’m just here for the papers.”

And it’s true. The papers – the work – are both the ticket in every year and the glue that holds us together. But we are so much more. We sustain each other through the year in both the sacred and the profane. We create safe space for frustrations with the greater church, our individual churches, our communities and we create safe space for celebrations, too. We challenge one another, we question one another, we pray for one another, we support one another.

As for me, this group has been there through numerous family transitions including a divorce and remarriage. They have heard stories about my Dad and respected my tears when he died. They embraced me when I came out as gay and prayed and supported me when I came out to the congregation I serve. They rallied around this Session and congregation as we all moved forward together in ministry.

So yes, it is still about the papers. But it is also about camaraderie and collegiality; it is about the deep, rich relationship that comes in the walking through valleys and over mountaintops together; it is about the yoke of trust when we put our relationships above the Calls we are trying to discern often to the same churches.

It is about Christian fellowship and friendship in its purest and most Holy of forms – and I am blessed and a better person for it.

But I still want the papers.


head shotKathryn Johnston is the Senior Pastor at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. She is a member of The Well cohort group and would write more, but she has to go write her papers.

photo credit: notashamed via photopin cc


Post Christendom or A Dying Church

By the Revitalization Team at Community Presbyterian Church in Southern California


From John Vest’s video, “What is Post-Christendom” we learned about Post-Christendom and now a message from a Millennial “To the Dying Church…”.

A Millennial is commonly defined as someone who has come into young adulthood around the year 2000.  Wikipedia states, “There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.”

Christendom is often referred to as a time when the Christian Church or the Christian world represented a geopolitical power.  Or we might look at it as where and when the Christian Church is the dominant power.  Times have changed!

Here are some thoughts from a Millennial – Brandon Robertson from his article on the Sojourners blog.

“…what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all. Instead, we are experiencing the death of Christendom.”

“For centuries, Christianity has dominated the Western world. … With this kind of position and privilege, we have seen great masses of people flocking to our communities — not necessarily because they sought to commit their lives to the way of Jesus, but rather because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do.”

“So the good news is that you are not dying. While the studies indicate that organized communities of faith are in decline, the amount of men and women who are seeking and finding a radical faith in Jesus is increasing. God is still at work in our world and is still bringing people into this rag-tag family called the church. My generation, the millennials, are also not walking away from their faith in Jesus, but are walking away from the modernized, politicized, sterilized, Europeanized version of Christian faith. Organic, grassroots communities of faith are forming all across our nation without buildings, without marketing, without ordained clergy, without 501(c)(3) exemptions, and without the privilege that most institutionalized churches have enjoyed for so many decades. These communities are simple: spiritual seekers, followers of Jesus, coming to express their true questions, thoughts, and experiences, seeking to be encouraged and empowered to live out the radical way of Jesus in their communities, cultures, and world. These communities aren’t recognized as a church, but as a way of life, a tribe of friends who are working and walking with one another to change the world and establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”

“God is re-revealing to us the radical message of our Lord — a message of transformation through service, sacrifice, and selfless love for our neighbors, enemies, and selves. A message of humiliation and simplicity as the way of abundance and eternal life… a Christianity that is given worldly power is not Christianity at all. Christianity is the religion that proclaims a God who humbled himself and entered into creation, taking the form of a servant —who touched the untouchables and spoke sharp truth that exposed those in power. Christianity is a religion centered the subversive power of love and sacrifice, not power and wealth.”

Now that we are beginning to understand ourselves in a post-Christian era and away of a generation of millennials, the question before us is how to do choose to respond and engage?


Design Your Own Preacher Camp


By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

For the past several years I’ve been in a group of clergy called “The Well.” We patterned ourselves after the Moveable Feast, a group that’s been meeting together for more than 25 years. People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s not that complicated to put a group together. We in The Well would love to see these groups propagate, and in fact, we first got started thanks to the support and guidance of Feast member Tom Are, who invited us to meet at Village Church our first year.

Our basic format: We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, chosen randomly by one of our members; I believe there is a sorting hat involved. For each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing an exegetical paper of about 3,500 words that will be read at our gathering. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” With 18 people in our group, we leave our gathering with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider, but ensures that each member is personally connected to someone in the group. This helps with accountability.

Decide what kind of denominational/ regional/ theological/ seminary diversity you want, or don’t want. We went for cohesion more than intentionally seeking diversity, which is probably why we’ve succeeded, but it means we need to seek out other venues for engaging with people who differ dramatically from us. We started with 15 members and when we’ve added folks, we’ve always added at least 2 at a time so those people can integrate as a group rather than be the odd person out. Eighteen feels like a good size for our purposes.

2. Have a basic covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.

3. Have a “dues guy/gal.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on the size of people’s continuing education budgets, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person, as I mentioned, draws names out of a hat to figure out who gets which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations several months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on beforehand).

We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t necessarily mean it takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet during the day (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are the decider for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group—if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”—so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptops, or print them if they’re a scribbling type. We have them due by the Friday morning before we leave so printing people can print. If you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies.

6. Schedule for the week: We schedule 35 minutes per paper. The person reads the scripture, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and lately we’ve been able to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. By the time we finish for the afternoon, we’re fried. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy. So we schedule a night for sharing these stories.

I hope these tips help groups form and thrive. But I also know there is an X factor in group dynamics. Here are some additional thoughts on what helps us succeed. But sometimes, all the ingredients are there and it just doesn’t work. Don’t beat yourself up; it happens. But give a group a try. It might be one of the most important things you do.


wallsquareMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA, and co-chair of NEXT Church. She was also the proud winner of this year’s trophy at the Well. Connect with her at The Blue Room.

Rooster Soup, Gospel Values, and Creative Fundraising

By Andy Greenhow and Casey Thompson

We’re always surprised by who God calls to the table.

Maybe we shouldn’t be. We’re both pastors, after all. Andy, especially. He is one of the pastors at Broad Street Ministry (BSM), a ministry founded in Philadelphia in 2005 based on the gospel value the church could be a place where everyone belongs. Emphasis on everyone. So the BSM founding mothers and fathers like Rev. Bill Golderer, BSM’s Convening Minister, stood on street corners and handed out printed invitations to worship and to the weekly No Barriers Dinner, Philadelphia’s Most Dangerous Dinner Party.

And wouldn’t you know it? People showed up. But in addition to young, artsy, and employed pledging units, outwardly suffering people came in droves—people experiencing hunger, homelessness, poverty, addiction, and mental illness. They came to the table—the liturgical one at the center of our worship and the round ones in the cathedral dining room, a scene straight out of Luke 14. They came to eat at our community meals, but they also needed a change of clothes, they were looking for some deodorant or a change of underwear, and they needed a mailing address.

The question shifted from, “How do you get people to come?” to “How do you care for our city’s most vulnerable?” BSM had a strong staff and a relatively coherent theology rooted in the table, but in order for us to accommodate all the people who had accepted the invitation, we needed help from the pros. So we invited a few more to the table: a diverse group of hoteliers and restaurateurs to come together and advise us on how we could be the newest members of Philadelphia’s robust hospitality industry.

Fast forward a few years and some of those restaurateurs came to BSM with an idea. CookNSolo (that’s Steven Cook and Mike Solomonov) is a family of restaurants, among them a local favorite, Federal Donuts, specializing in fried chicken and donuts. (Fried Chicken and Donuts, y’all!) Federal Donuts was discarding about 1,000 pounds of perfectly good chicken backs and bones a week and wanted to make it into soup. God had invited them to the table and they had something to bring. Of course, the soup would taste good. But could it do good, too?

Rooster Soup-main After some fried-chicken-fueled brainstorming between Mike, Steven, and Bill, Broad Street Ministry and Federal Donuts decided to invite even more people to the table and open the Rooster Soup Company, a restaurant that uses discarded chicken from FedNuts to make delicious soup to be sold at a profit to support Broad Street Ministry’s hospitality work. A restaurant that donates all its profits can’t exactly get traditional investors or a bank loan, so we widened the invitation to the table a little more and took to Kickstarter to crowdfund the idea. (It’s going really well, thanks for asking! There’s about a week left and you can watch the video if you think you’re interested in joining us at the table.)

Rooster Soup

What Casey thinks is brilliant about this idea (which he’s comfortable saying since he had nothing to do with it) is that it’s harnessing a gospel value — hospitality — that people who never walk in a church value as well. Like Steven and Mike. You won’t find them at church but you could probably catch them at the synagogue for the high holidays. And if you look at the backers on Kickstarter, you’ll find Buddhists and Muslims, atheists and agnostics, a little bit of everyone around the table. As we said earlier, we’re always surprised by who God calls to the table.

We also think there’s some deep thinking the church needs to do about how the church develops social businesses—because tithing is dying and we need to start these conversations now. If it emerges from our defining values, like the value of hospitality, then it has a chance of being an authentic invitation to the gospel as well as a revenue stream.

But that’s a blog post for another day.

The big idea here is this: Some people who had nothing to do with the Presbyterian church or even the broader Christian church came to us with a concept that they wanted to try, oriented around shared gospel values that they believed we would want to get on board with, that would enliven a whole city around new possibilities, and that would provide sustainable funding to an important ministry.

The next church doesn’t only try established possibilities and it doesn’t shout into the echo chamber to find solutions. It reaches out, finds best practices, asks for help, and finds a diverse body of shared-value stakeholders. Something like this could happen anywhere. So let’s get Rooster Soup off the ground and then we’ll gather at the table again and do something like it somewhere else.


Andy is Minister of Stewardship, Congregational Partnership & Belonging at BSM and is coordinating the Rooster Soup Co. effort for Broad Street.

Casey’s not on staff at BSM but he likes to pretend he is and might as well be. He is the Pastor of the Wayne Presbyterian Church, one of the five founding churches of BSM.

Blessing Those Who Come after Us

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around leadership cohort groups that sustain people in ministryHave ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. To see all that has been written on this topic, go to the blog main page.

By Glen Bell

palm treeAlmost two years ago this summer, I was called to become pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota, Florida.

Among my friends, the jokes started almost immediately.

Friends described Sarasota as “God’s waiting room.” Those who had previously lived here warned me about the octogenarians on the highways and the long lines in area restaurants for dinner at 4:30 pm.

They were right. No less than one third of my friends and neighbors in Sarasota are 65 years old or over. That compares nationally, according to the US Census, with only 13% of the American population who are retirement age or above.

“Land Ho!” is a recently released film, written and directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, chronicling an adventuresome trip by two older adults. The two protagonists are Colin and Mitch, longtime friends. Manohla Dargis, in a review in the New York Times, writes this: “In too many movies, older characters are repellently cute and kooky. Colin and Mitch are far more robust. They are healthy and solidly, lustily present, despite the occasional hitch in their step.” Those are the friends and neighbors I am encountering in Sarasota – full of life, healthy, solid, recognizing their limitations, but undaunted and determined.

These are important experiences for us all, for Sarasota reflects our Presbyterian Church (USA). Nationally, the Presbyterian tradition we love and serve is composed of weekly worshipers of whom 42-43% are 65 or over.

What can we learn in Sarasota? What might this congregation teach us?

From the moment I encountered First PC, Sarasota, I discovered a rich welcome. The church focuses on biblical hospitality and excels at embracing newcomers. A variety of participants, including elders, deacons, and retired pastors, are deeply rooted in the ethos of Presbyterian life. They have reached the “integrity” stage that Erik Erikson posits as the capstone of human life, and in their maturity, they prioritize the nurture of others and the growth of those who follow them. These values are reflected in the rich programming for youth and children, as well as a highly-regarded preschool.

In addition to these strengths, walking along the beach at sunset my wife and I personally confirmed that Sarasota is breathtakingly beautiful.

We put all that together in our new Pastoral Development Seminars. Each year, we now invite a group of new pastors, in their first several years of ministry, to come to Sarasota for five days in the fall and five days in winter. Here they reflect on their ministry setting and preaching, with the insights of a seminar leader (Tim Halverson last year and Tom Walker this year). They rub elbows with a scholar, preacher or leader from the Presbyterian tradition (Gradye Parsons and Brian Blount last year; Dean Thompson and Cynthia Rigby this year). They relax and discover friends in this beautiful place.

Through the rich hospitality of this congregation, these young pastors grow and develop and enjoy one another.

Following our first year, one participant wrote,

“I left Sarasota feeling energized and excited. I could not be more grateful.”

Another commented,

“This is the best continuing education experience I have had in ministry.”

There is nothing very unique about this program. Across the United States, Presbyterian congregations and organizations host a variety of opportunities to nurture new ministers. A number, like Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, offer a two-year residency for seminary graduates. Others, like First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, have recently embarked on financial campaigns to fund and sustain such efforts. Still others, like Second Presbyterian Church, Roanoke, provide guided experiences for a group of young pastors for one or two weeks each year. The Synod of Lincoln Trails and a number of PC(USA) seminaries have years of productive tradition in forming recent seminary grads. NEXT sponsors lively and life-giving national gatherings and other opportunities that are especially attractive to young pastors and elders.

The common dynamic is this: We Presbyterians are people of energy and imagination. Many of us have a rich background over many decades, and are eager to bless those who come after us. We are healthy and solidly present. Some of us are a bit older than our neighbors. In light of all that, what can each of us do to serve and nurture new pastors?

This opportunity demands our creativity. We need not be constrained by the size or circumstance of our congregation; what matters is not the size or funding level of the programs we may imagine and fashion, but rather the depth of our intention and commitment.

Sustaining new pastors is worth our very best.

I was delighted to welcome the first group to Sarasota, seeing the ways our congregation was blessed by hosting them, witnessing the opportunity for the participants both to grow and to relax.

But the greatest gift came several weeks later, when I saw a social media post in which all the new pastors were Skypeing together, continuing to encourage and pray with each other.

  • Can you and I create lively new opportunities to bless new pastors?
  • Can we offer vital gifts, with deep dedication, to those who come after us?
  • Can we plug into and support programs that nurture young ministers?

For each and all of us, so be it.

Glen Bell is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, FL and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. 

photo credit: Douglas Brown via photopin cc

Peer Learning Makes the Church Better

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around leadership cohort groups that sustain people in ministryHave ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. To see all that has been written on this topic, go to the blog main page.

Peer Learning Makes Better Pastors

The US Congregational Life Leader Survey found that pastoral leaders who participate in peer learning are more engaged in their own self-care and development.[1] Ministers who take a day off regularly are twice as likely to be involved in a peer group. Those who participate in continuing education are more than five times as likely to be involved in peer learning. Pastoral leaders in peer groups are also twice as likely to say that maintaining a private life separate from their work is “no problem.” What’s more, the relationship is two-way.

Peer learning makes better pastors and better pastors participate in peer learning!

Peer Learning Makes Better Congregations

peer learning

A pastor’s involvement in a peer group makes a difference for their congregations.

The Faith Communities Today Survey found that pastors in peer groups lead congregations that are highly participatory. Three-quarters of ministers in a peer group report that leadership roles are shared among laity in their churches. And we see how this works in chapter 3, where we hear the story of a Church of God minister who learned to share leadership in his peer group. When he used a more facilitative style of leadership in his own church, he was amazed at the positive results. But the story is quite different for pastors who aren’t in peer groups. In close to half of their congregations, leadership isn’t shared very much—the same people tend to serve in the same roles.[2]

A culture of involvement extends to youth and new members. Nearly twice as many pastors in peer groups report that youth serve on church committees and boards.[3] Their congregations are also more likely to involve new members in worship and in service to the church and the community.[4]

Pastors who participate in a peer group are more active in their communities.[5] So are the congregations they lead. Their churches are more likely to see themselves as change agents and strongly emphasize community service.

Several of our peer group approaches are intentional about community involvement as a part of their experience, such as Lott Carey’s cross-cultural pastoral immersion model. Seattle’s School of Theology and Ministry showcases stories of peer groups whose members are different from one another in every conceivable way and who through deep listening and mutual discernment become true companions in leadership. Interpersonal change leads to congregational and community change. The Seattle project’s intent may not be to change communities, but in many cases that is indeed what happens.

Pastors in peer groups lead congregations that are committed to clergy continuing education.[6] Their churches are more likely to require it and help to fund it. Many of the pastoral leaders profiled in this book serve congregations that contribute financially to their peer group experience.

So a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group leads to congregations that are highly participatory, supportive of the minister’s continuing education, and active in their communities.[7] These are important signals of health in congregations. Another indicator of health is numerical growth.

Is there a relationship between a pastoral leader’s peer group involvement and the growth of their congregation? Yes. However, simply being in a peer group is not enough. Two specific characteristics of a pastoral leader’s participation are strongly related to numerical growth in congregations: the length of time clergy have participated in a peer group and the peer group’s leadership and structure.

Pastors with a history of participation in a peer group lead congregations that grow. The relationship is quite strong.[8] The length of time a pastor has been involved in a peer group is one of the top predictors of numerical growth. Only the involvement of the congregation in recruitment, a congregation with a younger average age and an active youth ministry, and little to no congregational conflict are better predictors. It also helps if a pastor is involved in a peer group that is led by a trained facilitator and includes a curriculum or other intentional learning plan.


This article is an excerpt from the Introduction to So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013) by The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) Peer Learning Project: Penny Long Marler, D. Bruce Roberts, Janet Maykus, James Bowers, Larry Dill, Brenda K. Harewood, Richard Hester, Sheila Kirton-Robbins, Marianne LaBarre, Lis Van Harten, and Kelli Walker-Jones. It is available at


[1] These are the results of logistic regressions that calculate the odds of being in a peer group as well as taking a day off, participating in continuing education, and maintaining a private life separate from their work.

[2]Only 27 percent of pastoral leaders in peer groups said that the same people tend to serve in the same leadership roles in their congregations, whereas 44 percent of pastoral leaders who were not in peer groups responded that the same people tended to serve in the same roles.

[3]Thirty–seven percent of pastoral leaders in a peer group said that their youth serve on congregational committees and boards as compared to 21 percent of pastoral leaders who are not in peer groups.

[4]Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that new persons were assimilated into their congregations through participation in worship (53 percent versus 38 percent); participation in service to the church (42 percent versus 28 percent); and participation in community service (39 percent versus 23 percent).

[5]Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that they spend a lot of time representing the congregation in the community (55 percent versus 43 percent); that their congregation strongly emphasizes community service (51 percent versus 42 percent); and that their congregation is a change agent in the community (73 percent versus 60 percent).

[6]Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that their congregation provides financial support for the minister’s continuing education (76 percent versus 55 percent) and requires the minister to participate in continuing education annually (50 percent versus 28 percent).

[7] We know that “correlation is not causation.” So we created and tested models (logistic regression) for predicting participation in congregations, community involvement, and support for clergy continuing education. We found that a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group predicted congregations where laity rotate in leadership roles; small groups are emphasized; new members are assimilated through service to the church and the community; the congregation supports and requires continuing education; and the pastoral leader spends more time in administration, supervision, and representing the church in the community.

[8]Since its first administration in 2000, the FACT Survey included a question about average worship attendance in the last six years, in this case, from 2003 to 2008. Respondents are asked to record these numeric averages by year. A “growth” variable is created by calculating a percentage change in attendance over the five–year period of measurement and then collapsing the measure into categories. The data in the chart reflect three categories: “congregation declined” is a five–year percentage decline in attendance of 5 percent or more; “congregation experienced growth” is a five–year decline or increase of less than 5 percent; and “congregation experienced growth” is a five–year percentage increase in attendance of 5 percent or more. When the growth variable is correlated with the survey item about the length of time the pastoral leader participated in a peer group, the results are definitive. Again, in order to determine whether a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group predicts congregational growth, we created and tested a logistic regression model that included factors known to be related to church growth.


Narrative Theology in Practice: Decision-Making and Governance


By the Rev. Dean J. Seal

Rev. Bryan McLaren was on the Krista Tippett radio show, “On Being.” He said something that jumped out at me when talking about the young spiritual seekers that he was encountering: “We don’t need to come at them with another set of rules. We need to bring them our stories.” This is a methodology that would be very hard to swallow for a faith tradition (Presbyterianism) that was founded by a lawyer. The Teaching Elders are supposed to handle narrative, and the Ruling Elders are supposed to delineate finely woven interpretations thereof. So our General Assemblies can seem to boil down to hair-splitting. Taking a stand on divestment, ordination standards, same-sex marriage, and other issues can take 20 years to resolve… or 20 years to make a new schism. And when schism breaks out, it’s as if we aren’t even inhabiting the same stories anymore.

There are ample reasons to be deliberate, especially in relation to governance. But Robert’s Rules of Order can prevent timely participation in the fast moving world; maybe reason and logic aren’t our prime considerations. Things that are not logical are not necessarily illogical; they can be transrational. Spirituality and the spiritual life transcend logic; they are about an experience of the Holy Spirit. And that is beyond human verbal constract. When speaking of spiritual issues, and the present sufferings of large bodies of human beings, it needs to be encountered directly. We have proved we can parse a course of action until we are blue in the face. What if our goal were to listen to stories instead? Not very pragmatic, but hear me out.

This is to me an essential character of theological practice, the pursuit of narrative. What is more central to our faith tradition than storytelling? Jesus was a magnificent storyteller; his 35 parables are so entrenched in our culture that  it’s part of our language when we have no experience of its provenance. How many people use the phrase “good Samaritan” without realizing that the Samaritans were considered the bad guys? The stories and parables about Jesus round out his biography, so that we can understand him as a man, as a God-intoxicated human of divine inspiration, as a Son of God (wherever you are on the continuum of Christology). It is through his stories that we learn and come to know him, and why he is central to us; the rest is commentary. Like pictures in a stained glass window, the image of the story can be told beyond the specific words. Those stories are worth telling, and worth hearing.

But God did not stop speaking at the end of the New Testament. Each of us has a story to tell, stories of sacred people, spiritual events that shook our world, miracle stories of people who have done amazing things beyond our grasp because they were spirit-filled. Narrative theology is the telling of stories that carry meaning. It can be Moses telling God he was not good enough to lead The People out of Egypt, or it can be something more current.

I produced a play (Marietta) about a woman who forgave the kidnapper of her daughter, before she knew how her daughter was. A true story. And Marietta Jaeger came to tell us about it. She explained that her first reaction was that she wanted to kill the guy, like anyone would. But it didn’t take her long to understand that first, that makes her into him; and second, it makes her into his second victim. In order to recover a life, she had to renounce vengeance, resolve to leave anger behind, and forgive this person. Forgiveness does not grant absolution; it means she has resolved not to be consumed by hate. And Marietta reminds us: “Forgiveness is not for wimps.” It is not an act of weakness; it is an act of strength. And even then an act of strength that she couldn’t manage without God’s help every hour of every day. How many times should I forgive him? Seventy times seven hundred billion.

We can learn from organizations like The Forgiveness Project in London, telling stories about forgiveness and reconciliation that are jaw-dropping. From the website:

“Bassam Aramin became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in the ancient city of Hebron. At 17, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops, and spent seven years in prison. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Since then, Bassam has not once picked up a weapon – not even when, two years later, his ten-year-old daughter Abir was gunned down and killed by an Israeli soldier.”

Who can bear to hear these stories? These miraculous, impossible  stories? Does it matter if Marietta is a Catholic and Bassam is a Muslim? No. What matters is that we hear these stories, that we give opportunities to hear these stories. There are several organizations of bereaved parents of children killed in the Occupation of Palestine. I would suggest finding a place in the next General Assembly where we either bring in speakers from both sides, or be in contact with them via video conferencing technology. We should listen to these stories with our hearts, informed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Instead of doing all the talking, we can do a deeper, more eloquent job of listening. We can see what happens if we are moved by the Spirit to have ideas, to think and to act, not just instruct others on how they should act. We should be hearing stories, hearing congregants, listening for God’s still, quiet voice.

The telling and hearing of stories can be a healing thing, for both the speaker and the listener. It’s what Therapy is made of. And because there is Narrative Therapy in the telling of any story, we should indulge ourselves in the healing power of this practice, without a preconceived idea of decision-making. At least for a while. The committee work will always be there waiting.


Rev. Dean J. Seal (MATA, MDiv) has a Validated Ministry in Interfaith Dialogue through the performing arts. His 9-year-old non-profit, Spirit in the House, has produced over 100 plays, storytelling performances, film showings and panel discussions. It has produced a Public Television show on Marietta, and 24 YouTube Videos on Forgiveness, as part of the annual Forgiveness 360 Symposium. Seal has also served time in Show Biz, writing for and performing on A Prairie Home Companion; Comedy Central; MTV (La Bamba in Hebrew) and America’s Funniest Videos (La Bamba in Japanese). As Executive Producer of the MN Fringe Festival, he made it the largest non-juried performance festival in the US, which it still is today. His book, Church & Stage, about the use of theater in the congregation, is available on Amazon.

photo credit: Jill Clardy via photopin cc