A New Reformation?

Some reflections on Reformation Sunday by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

“And the one who was seated on the throne said,
‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” – Revelation 21:5

photo credit: Keren_ via photopin cc

photo credit: Keren_ via photopin cc

We are approaching the 500-year anniversary to the Reformation. Then too, the church faced unstoppable pressure to reform and to be transformed by the work of the Spirit. Many methods and practices of the church had lost their luster. A growing storm of discontent changed the Christian church, as it was then known. And it appears we are witnessing the start of another such upheaval.

Mainline historians such as Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass to evangelical historians like Donald Dayton and Scott Thuma, agree we are in the midst of a reformation that is happening all around us. In some ways we can’t see it very well, not unlike the way it can be possible that someone deep in the middle of a forest simply can’t see the forest for all the trees. It can also be difficult for those of us who are in the church to be aware of it because it is happening both quickly (think of the downturn in weekly church attendance numbers in the U.S. across the theological spectrum since the brief uptick after 9/11) and slowly, over a lot of time, (the changing multicultural face of the American Christian church even as what were once mission fields in South America, Africa, and Asia are now the largest Christian churches who are now sending missionaries to America).

On that first Reformation Day, Martin Luther targeted 95 issues about the church at that time that he believed were in need of reformation. What about the church today is ripe for reformation? Author Thom Shultz suggests four:

  • Format – the typical church is a membership organization designed to drive weekly attendance at a central location. Culture is increasingly rejecting that format, as service clubs and other similar organizations are also struggling. What if the church were to become known more as a relationship than a Sunday morning event?
  • Professionalization – Ministry today is the work of paid professionals. Have you noticed how churches have come to see staff as the driver for programs and see worship being led by paid professionals on the “stage” while people in the pews sit passively and watch? Yet we live in an increasingly interactive and participatory culture. What if followers of Jesus felt empowered to be part of “the priesthood of all believers?”
  • Focus – Churches today emphasis a wide variety of things. Morals. Service. Bible knowledge. Social ills. Worship. More people say the church is known more for what it is against that what it is for. What if the church could become known as a community of believers focused on growing a relationship with Jesus, and loving one another unconditionally (for example, loving God and neighbor)?
  • Denominationalism – In the last century, churches grew though a denominational franchise system. Centralized control, resources, and reputation worked – until they didn’t. Will centralized denominations (of whatever theological stripe) survive when everyone has easy access to a variety of sources?

These are a few of the places in the church today where reformation is already happening. One of the reasons I am part of the NEXT Church renewal movement in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is because I want to be intentional about participating in the reformation that the Spirit of God is already accomplishing in our midst I am eager to see what God is going to do – in the congregation I serve, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and in the Christian church around the world.

smith cobbsStephen Smith-Cobbs is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Ten Gray Hairs and a Lot to Learn

This month, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored. Bob Henderson’s post on being a mentor went up yesterday. Join the conversation on Facebook.

By Petra Wahnefried

photo credit: susanne anette via photopin cc

photo credit: susanne anette via photopin cc

I drove past the gravesite where the crowd was already assembling, parked and pulled down the visor to take one last look at myself in the mirror. Taking a deep breath, I rearranged my hair so that my ten white hairs would show. I normally am appalled that I’ve started going gray at age 27 and I try to pluck the white ones out, but on this day I needed to look as wise as I could get. It was the first time I was officiating a funeral, and as I sat there looking in the mirror, I was aware of the burden that looking young can be.

As a young, female pastor, I am told again and again that “I cannot be a minister” simply because I do not look like the old man who they have come to associate with the title Reverend. Entering hospital rooms to do pastoral care, I am constantly confused for the patient’s grandchild rather than being considered a spiritual leader. When I do premarital counseling, couples wonder what wisdom I could offer them as a young, single female. Day in and day out, I struggle with people telling me that I cannot do a job that I feel called to do not in some distant future, but right now.

It is these voices that tell me that I cannot be a pastor that play though my mind as I prepare for the funeral. It’s intimidating to go to a funeral knowing that you are the youngest one there by 20 years and that it is your responsibility to lead people in celebrating the life of their loved one, grieving their loss, making sense of death, and finally proclaiming a message of the hope of the resurrection – all within a 30 minute service in which you also commit a person’s body into the ground before the rain storm blows in. Maybe they are right – maybe I am too young to be a pastor.   I begin to pray earnestly, “God, I know I am young, but please let me not screw this up. Also, I’ve heard rumor that sometimes pastors slip and fall into graves. I don’t know if that is true, but if that could also not happen, that would be great!”

It’s at this moment where I look down and get the exact reassurance that I need. I see scrawled out on paper the notes that I had taken earlier that day in a meeting with my supervisor. I was not going into this situation alone, but with the advice and knowledge of somebody who had been doing funerals for upwards of twenty years. My supervisor had carved out an hour from his busy schedule to help me prepare for the funeral and walk me through logistics. That’s the difference between many ministers who face the difficult situation of their first funeral as a young pastor and myself. I am not just a pastor but also a pastoral resident. While I perform most of the same things that an associate pastor would do, I have a supervisor to guide me through many of these intimidating firsts. In the same way that a medical resident works beside a more experienced doctor who can help them grow, I work with a great pastor who has a few more gray hairs than my measly ten so that I can succeed far more in my first years of ministry and grow into an even better minister than I am. I have profited so much from working alongside him and gleaning his knowledge. In return, my fresh look at ministry has freshened his view of the church and enabled him to be a better pastor. It is with this assurance and support that I entered my first funeral.

So, to all of those who say I am too young to be a pastor. In many ways you are right. At my first funeral, I ended up forgetting to find where the burial hole was before the service, so when it came time to put the ashes in the ground, I fumbled around to find out where the hole was underneath the astroturf rug. I ended up knocking over a whole vase of flowers that was caught by the daughter of the deceased woman who dove out onto the floor to catch it.   But, the prayers and order of service that I got advice on before that was flawless, and after having debriefed the experience with my supervisor, I will go into my second funeral with a few more gray hairs and more experience to thrive.

Petra Wahnefried is a pastoral resident at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC.

Decades of Dividends

This month, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored. Read all the posts here. Click here to join the conversation on Facebook.

By Bob Henderson

“You have gray hair!” she exclaimed joyfully, extending her arms to offer a warm embrace.

It wasn’t exactly the greeting I expected, at least not the first part.

It happened last week at Montreat. I drove up Assembly Drive, looked to the left to check for signs of life at the home of Walter and Jeane Jones, just in case they were in town for the same conference. They were, and when I dropped in, Jeane greeted me with characteristic warmth.

“It’s so good to see you. It’s almost late enough for a glass of wine. Come on, sit on the porch. We’ll start early.”

We sat and caught up on friends, family, and laughed about what we call our “halcyon days” of ministry, five years good years together at Eastminster Presbyterian in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

photo credit: dingatx via photopin cc

photo credit: dingatx via photopin cc

Our relationship began when I was called to serve as an associate pastor for congregational care where Walter served as senior pastor. I was straight out of seminary, young, idealistic, and energetic. But, I was also inexperienced (yes, I almost dropped the baby during my first baptism), regularly impatient, and more than occasionally arrogant. The truth is that our “halcyon days” were because Walter made them that way. He was patient with my hubris, generous with opportunities for growth, and modeled for me a ministry of integrity and self-sacrifice. In other words, he was a mentor, so much so that during the past 21 years, I have often thought, “How would Walter approach this situation?” and occasionally picked up the phone to ask him.

Now that I have my own gray hair, gratitude for Walter’s investment has led me to invest in others, hoping, perhaps, to pay forward the gift given to me in those early years. To that end, my present congregation, Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte, has begun a pastoral residency program, hired seminary interns, called young associates, and sent numerous of our members to seminary. As I’ve interacted with those launching into a life of ministry, I’ve paused to consider what made Walter so effective.

Five themes emerged:

  1. He enjoyed our time together. When I think of my time with Walter, I envision him smiling, laughing, and taking delight, even in my ineptitude. He derived genuine pleasure from my company and treasured the gift of sharing ministry;
  2. He was patient. When I began at Eastminster, I had a lot of adjusting to do. I’d been married a whole week, out of school a whole month, and lived in town a whole day. I didn’t know how ministry worked, how marriage worked, how Atlanta worked. Somehow, Walter remained patient through my learning curve, even when the demands on his own time were considerable and he would have benefited from a more experienced associate.
  3. He was humble. His experience as a naval officer, graduate student academic dean, minister, parent and spouse helped him know what he didn’t know. On the contrary, when I came out of seminary I knew a lot – in fact, a whole lot more than I know now – and he tempered my youthful hubris with his experienced humility.
  4. He created time. Growing churches are always behind on staffing and pressed for time. And yet, I could always ask, visit, talk and check in when needed. He prioritized my success and made himself available to foster it.
  5. He maintained integrity. His advice was grounded in the moral authority of his actions. His ends and means cohered. This was, perhaps, the greatest gift. He lived the life to which he called others and reminded me that more than anything, people want their pastor to be a person of genuine faith.

There’s more, of course, but to be mentored by someone with those five principles was a gift beyond price. Even more, it was an investment in the future that has paid dividends for decades, and it’s now my turn to pay it forward, hopefully by treating others with similar grace and wisdom.

Bob Henderson is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC.

If You Build It They Will (Not) Come

NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as we think about being the church in the 21st century. For our purposes this month, we focus on the way in which congregation-based community organizing places emphasis on developing new leaders. Read Jeff Krehbiel’s post for another example.


By Jessica Tate

“If you build it, they will come.”

We held that maxim for several years in children’s ministry at the congregation I first served.

It is not true.

“We need better curriculum,” I thought. One that more fully embraces the Presbyterian theology we preach, is attentive to multiple intelligences, one that takes children and their spiritual questions seriously, and is easy for our teachers to use. That is what good curriculum should do, according to my Masters’ degree in Christian Education. So we researched and acquired a new curriculum.

The children did not come.

“Our teachers need better training so they will be more invested, more prepared, and developing spiritually themselves.” We did more training. Our teachers were ready!

The children did not come.

We need better snacks, more play time, less choir, more choir, more bible drills, parent education, family events… the list went on and on and we tried it all.

They did not come.

Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock

Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock

The children’s ministry team had been eager for their shiny new pastor to arrive with a pristine education degree and solutions. Starting this new call, I thought the stagnation of the children’s ministry was simply a matter of technical fixes and re-energizing volunteers. Two years in we realized we were wrong and we were frustrated. All of us believed in the value of forming our children in faith, but we couldn’t get more than a dozen families engaged. We didn’t know what else to try.

During those same years we were trouble-shooting the children’s ministry problem, the mission portion of my job had me deeply engaged in community organizing through VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement), where I was learning about the power of relationships to make change in our community around issues we cared about. In Northern Virginia, these were issues of:

  • affordable housing (as we watched developers tear down apartment complexes to build luxury condominiums – “staring in the $700s!” – and knew firefighters and nurses who commuted an hour or more to work.)
  • the foreclosure crisis (that blighted neighborhoods in Prince William county and trapped homeowners in endless bureaucratic cycles of refinancing and foreclosure because banks weren’t devoting enough human resources to deal with the huge increase in the number of families needing these services in the burst of the housing bubble.)
  • affordable dental care for the uninsured (I had never before thought about the social and financial impact of dental care until I talked to some of my neighbors and realized the poor condition of your teeth makes you wary of opening your mouth to speak.)
  • increased identification requirements for drivers’ licenses that unfairly targeted immigrants and prevented them from getting legal identification.

Through these organizing efforts I was learning the marks of relational (v. bureaucratic) culture, how power works in a community to get things done (or prevent things from happening), the ways in which people’s own interests and passions get acted on (or not), and that all organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.

I was learning skills like relational meetings, power analysis, listening campaigns, and evaluation. I was participating in local trainings and actions in our area and being constantly support and challenged to grow by the organizers and other leaders with whom I was working. Three years into my first call I went to the Industrial Areas Foundation national training, which completely reframed the ways in which I understood how to do my job as a pastor, namely, by working primarily relationally within and outside of my congregation (as opposed to programmatically) and to strategically align my energy and time with the passions and interests of others with whom I was in relationship to develop ourselves into disciples and be the church for the world.

I was participating in a Community Organizing Cluster in my presbytery that encouraged pastors to use the principles of organizing inside their congregations when it became clear that the wisdom and skills I was learning in organizing to make change in our community might be relevant to the stagnation we were experiencing in children’s ministry.

What if the children’s ministry committee gave up our frantic “build it and they will come” mentality and returned to our values as a relational culture?

One of the organizers for VOICE helped me design a listening campaign for the summer. A team of five leaders who were invested in children’s ministry came together to get trained in relational meetings. We let all the families in the church know that we were embarking on a children’s ministry listening campaign and encouraged them to respond if called upon by one of these leaders. The leaders met individually with twenty families in the congregation and then came back together to share what they heard and notice themes. We held “listening sessions” with members of the congregation who have a stake in children’s ministry to talk what matters to them about the faith formation of our children. For what do they most hope? What obstacles prevent their participation? To what are they willing to commit?

We discovered the most valued component of children’s ministry was caring adults who know the children and act as guides in Christian life. (Not biblical knowledge, entertainment value, or snack, despite that these are the areas I heard most about in the usual grumblings.) Meaningful relationships.

We learned the schedule everyone took for granted was a hindrance to participation and we worked together to find a schedule that suited most.

We also watched as those present at the listening sessions took responsibility for their own opinions and took power back from the squeakiest wheels. When one person said, “A lot of people think X…” the others present respectfully disagreed and shared what they did think, which prevented us from following a programmatic rabbit trail based on one person’s experience.

After listening well to each other and responding as a community (not just a committee), we made significant changes to the emphases in children’s ministry and the schedule of Sunday activities. Children’s ministry doubled the next year. And increased again the next.

Then it was time to listen again because, as we learned,

  • relationships are essential to the community’s life together,
  • people will act on their interest when they are able to name what that interest is, and,
  • because our lives are constantly changing, our programs needed to be continually dis-organized and re-organized.


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church. She previously served as Associate Pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church.

Cultivating Political Judgment

NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as we think about being the church in the 21st century. You can read more about organizing here. For our purposes this month, we focus on the way in which congregation-based community organizing places emphasis on developing new leaders. Having been trained in community organizing through the Industrial Areas Foundation early in his ministry, Jeff Krehbiel (pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC and member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team) views congregational life through the lens of organizing. Jeff pulled together a community organizing cluster in the presbytery to continue to develop leaders who have discovered the power of community organizing principles for congregational development, spiritual formation and significant community engagement. This piece is representative of the kind of reflective work done by this group.

By Jeff Krehbiel

I’ve always thought the conventional wisdom that you should make no changes in the first six months of a new call to be rather silly. The congregation has called you to be their pastor, and then you sit on your hands for six months? Trust that they saw something in you that they were waiting for, and then offer it. In my experience, at that moment of transition the congregation is ready to try something new, and is just waiting to see what you will bring to the mix.

On the other hand, most of us know pastors who arrive on the scene and push too hard and too fast with their own agenda, and the honeymoon is over even before it began. What’s the difference? It comes down to a matter of political judgment. When we are new, we have no choice but to act. The question is: Which actions are appropriate?

Learning from Community Organizing

In an earlier post, I offered this maxim from my experience in broad-based community organizing: the authority to lead comes from the strength of your relationships not the power of your ideas. There I wrote that the most important task of leadership is building relationships of trust that make change possible. Leaders are much more likely to listen to your good ideas when you have taken the time to really know them. People who trust one another are able to take great risks together.

In a new community organization, the organizer spends months, sometimes years, building relationships, identifying and training leaders, listening in individual and small-group meetings for issues the organization might take on, and conducting research with those leaders to vet ideas and narrow options. But eventually the organization needs to act. But how? And when? Wait too long, and the organization begins to atrophy. Act too soon and fail, and the organization may flounder before it even gets started.

Power Analysis

An important step in organizing—and equally important in congregational life—is doing a power analysis. In organizing, there has to be an assessment of the organization’s power in relation to your intended target so you can evaluate the campaign’s chances of success. In a new organization you build on early victories as the organization develops its political muscle. You don’t want to lose your first political fight or leaders will not be willing to engage the next one.

photo credit: dgray_xplane via photopin cc

photo credit: dgray_xplane via photopin cc

For many church leaders, asking who has power in the congregation seems crass. We’re not in a battle, this isn’t a fight, and we all just want to follow Jesus. Yet we also know that in every congregation there are leaders who can stop something from happening without even raising their voice. Often those with power in the congregation are not those who are most obstinate or opposed to change. (Often the loud complainers turn out not to have any real power at all.) More often those with power are the ones who are most loved and trusted. A power analysis is simply figuring out the pattern of relationships within the congregation. Who is in relationship with whom? Who are the people that others most trust? That people listen to? That they look to in times of controversy and change? In a small congregation, it might be a matriarch or patriarch. In a large congregation, there may be several centers of power.

This doesn’t mean that you never act in a way that challenges powerful people. It means that you never act without taking powerful people into account. Every pastor has certain leaders they are in closer relationship with than others. A power analysis helps you determine which leaders you need to connect with more closely, including those who may be outside your usual orbit. Change that is supported by a broad base of key leaders is much more likely to succeed.

Redefining Success

In organizing, deciding which issues to take on is not simply a calculation about whether you can win. Organizers also ask what impact this issue will have on the organization’s health and future. Will taking on this issue enhance our power? Will it develop new leaders? Will it help prepare us to take on the next issue? What are the consequences if we are not successful? How can we use this campaign to develop new allies?

In the same way, when pastors and other leaders are contemplating change, they need to do more than determine if they have the authority to make this change happen. (A corollary to the above maxim: the authority given to you in The Book of Order is not sufficient to sustain change in congregational life.) The process of change is as important as the change itself. How can we use this problem or issue before us to develop leaders? To cultivate relationships? To strengthen the congregation as a community of trust and risk-taking? Defining success is broader and deeper than asking simply “Did the change happen?” A more important question is, did the change contribute to the congregation’s health and future?

A Case Study

Before I was even called to be pastor of Church of the Pilgrims, a member of the PNC asked my thoughts on rearranging the sanctuary. There were many in the congregation anxious for new experiences in worship, and he hoped I would bring about change. When I began, changes in worship were introduced gradually, with lots of input from church members in the planning process, often in the spirit of experimentation: “Let’s give this a try.” But raising the issue of renovating the sanctuary seemed premature. In my third year, rearranging the sanctuary came up again in a planning meeting. Immediately it was clear that some people loved the idea and others did not, meaning there was no decision the Session could make that would make everyone happy.

In response, the Session determined not just to listen to the loudest voices (a bad habit from the past) but to listen to every voice. Over the next three months, we studied the history of sacred space, and held a series of congregational dialogues, in both large and small groups. Then we appointed a diverse team of leaders, representing several different constituencies in the congregation, and asked them to engage the services of an architect and explore options. The Session listened to congregational input strategically. There were pockets of resistance. All voices were honored, but leaders took special note that some of our newer, younger members experienced the sanctuary as cold and uninviting. The leaders helped these newer voices to be heard by the entire congregation. People felt listened to and respected, even though not everyone was on board. At the end of the process, when we presented a plan for a new design, we raised the $80,000 needed to carry it out with a single fund-raising letter.


Jeff KrehbielJeff Krehbiel is Pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Board, and a coach in the NEXT Church Paracletos Project.

The Sounds of Silence

By Jeremy Cannada

Jeremy is the pastor of Amelia Presbyterian Church in Amelia Court House, VA.  He was a participant last year in the Pastoral Development Seminars at First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota. You can read more about the Pastoral Development Seminars here.


photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

So many sounds fill my ears: background music while I write, telephones ringing during the day, text notifications in the night, the Word’s words replaying throughout the week, echoes of church members, children’s laughter, and widow’s cries. Depending on the day, these sounds may seem symphonic or cacophonic, especially as they become the metaphor for something greater. Yet, in the midst of the noise, I am learning how good it is to listen for the subtle tones of whispers and even silence.

Between holy bells and anthems and the incessant clatter of the world filling our ears, God still speaks, but do we hear—even if God speaks with a thunderous voice ? I opine that God’s voice is not deafening; God whispers softly and tenderly—all the more reason for us to listen more intently. The church deeply needs for its ministers and members to pause and allow distractive sounds to subside.

Becoming a genesis member of the Pastoral Development Seminar at the First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota offered a whispered invitation to the quiet my soul had been craving, even though I had not recognized its famish. Having served as a Teaching Elder for over two years, my soul’s ears had already developed tinnitus, resulting from the mundane and holy sounds overlapping each other, outplaying one another, and disappearing all together. Like those people on the Exodus journey through the wilderness, I sometimes felt lost. I ached. I hungered. I thirsted. I listened. But for what ?

I suspected I knew the answers to this question, but it was not until I gathered with other colleagues—from the heartland, a university town, a metropolitan center, the Appalachian foothills, and a rural village—that I was able to rediscover or keep kindled the Spirit’s whispers. It amazes what those four days in October and again in February did for the group and me. Church had provided us the real ministry at which seminary only hints; finally, we were able to share stories with others who heard them and understood. We conversed. We cried. We laughed. We shared. We learned. We bonded. We became friends.

We were reminded that all sounds are holy, regardless of their decibels, through that Florida congregation’s hospitality, the staff and volunteers’ kindness, and the seminar’s pastoral leaders’ generosity. We were encouraged to listen to the sounds, even when they may emanate from within us, and we encouraged each other to remember what it means to speak softly in hushed tones.

Since the seminar, I have tried to listen more intently for the whisper—and the silence. I listen for God’s song, and the once loud tinnitus in my soul’s ears has diminished greatly. Yes, the symphony still plays, and the cacophony still clashes, but I am able to hear better than ever. I am still trying to find my way, and with my new “sound” appreciation, I remain ever thankful for a congregation in Sarasota, whose name means “place to dance.”


Hospitality, Manna and New Pastors

By Glen Bell

The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “In the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.”

In the morning, there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another,

What is it?

Exodus 16:12-15

We live in the worst of times. The so-called Islamic State advances across the Middle East, and Ebola ravages West Africa. Wages are stagnant, and millennials worry they will be a permanent economic underclass. Our Western church has lost its way, and the spiritual but not religious search for a word of hope.

We live in the best of times. Beyond the spotlight, global democracy is expanding. Unemployment continues to drop, and the value of American firms remains strong. The church grows rapidly in Asia and Africa, as thousands discover the great Good News of Jesus Christ.

photo credit: cbmd via photopin cc

photo credit: cbmd via photopin cc

What story will we tell? What song will we sing?

Page after page, the Scriptures declare God’s deliverance, even through the worst of times. Amid oppression, God promises a new day. In the wilderness, God guides. In every moment, the Lord saves.

Sometimes we are not able to recognize God’s salvation at first. We ask, “What is it?” Only when we recall the journey, bring to mind God’s faithfulness, and place our trust in God’s promises can we tell our story and sing our song.

The leaders of First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota are similar to so many others in the Reformed tradition. We recognize the many challenges facing the church, globally, nationally and locally. But we have been blessed and are determined to bless others.

This congregation has resolved to share encouragement and hospitality with new pastors from across the United States,

  • welcoming them to renewal and recreation in Sarasota,
  • pairing them annually with a gifted seminar leader, and
  • providing them with the opportunity to learn from a noted speaker and teacher.

Pastors from Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Mississippi, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Florida have been participants the first two years. They come with hope and dreams, concerns and questions. Here they have the opportunity to pray and ponder, to reflect and recreate, to build friendships with one another for years to come.

On this journey, even in those moments when the wilderness presses close and our destination seems far, far away, we sing of God’s goodness. We tell the story of salvation. We trust our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We welcome and encourage and nurture.

This question is pressing for each of us:

  • How will we offer hospitality and encouragement to growing pastors, in order that the next church may grow and flourish?
  • What are the particular gifts that our congregation can offer?

As we trust the Holy, what story will we tell? What song will we sing? What is it?

Glen Bell is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida. He is a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

A Letter to Those Pastors with a Certain Amount of Experience and Wisdom

This month, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored. We kicked things off this week with a post by George Anderson, the co-convener (along with Ken McFayden from UPSem) of the Trent Symposium for new pastors. Today, Lori Raible, a past Symposium participant contributes a parallel piece.

Lori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Married to Rob, they have two children Joe (8) and Maeve (7). Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. Currently Lori’s vocational work includes work with NEXT Church and the Trent National Conference, which is being created in support of pastors in their first 7 years of ministry. Sponsored by the NEXT Conference, Macedonian Ministries, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Montreat Conference Center, and Second Presbyterian Church, Trent@Montreat (April 18-21, 2016) will join large group worship and keynote with small groups focused on specific areas of need and coached by experienced practitioners.

One generation shall laud your works to another, 
and shall declare your mighty acts. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. Psalm 145: 4 & 13

To Those with “A Certain Level of Experience and Wisdom,”

On behalf of those who have recently entered this peculiar and glorious calling of pastor, I write with humility, gratitude, and respect for the tenacity with which you have served and cultivated our good churches of the PCUSA.

safety net copyMine is a deep conviction and desire born from the early years of ministry. There have been holes of loneliness created by the weight of this vocation, which threatened to swallow my soul. It took both personal mentors and trustworthy peers to pull me from the depths with nets so strong that with them, I know I will not fall again.

Mentors have the power to equip new pastors with a sense of security and patience otherwise unknown. Mentors have the wisdom to guide and encourage pastors toward authentic and responsible ministry. Mentors have the unique opportunity to bolster a new generation of clergy who will be strong and bold enough to lead our Church through the transformation we are all experiencing yet unsure how to navigate.

Mine is a deep longing. A hope. A request. A plea for you to cast the net.

We have inherited a church that looks very different than the one you inherited. New clergy are okay with that. This wonky, unpredictable Church is all we have ever known. Spotty attendance, shaky budgets, and bare pews sadden us, but we aren’t afraid. If we were foolish enough to enter seminary at this point, than you can assume our optimism, foolish as it may seem, is of the Jesus sort.

We acknowledge the realities, but we don’t believe placing our old institutional model on life support[1] is what Jesus had in mind when he proclaimed, ‘new life.’ We are called to thrive together.

Our lives are not ordered the same way yours were early in ministries. Out of the 12,807 active pastors of the PCUSA, about 20% are in our first 7 years of ministry. 70% of our full-time pastors will retire in the next 10 years or so.[2] That means, for now at least, many newly ordained carry creative titles such as: bi-vocational, temporary supply, and ‘outside the bounds.’ Oh, and well over half of the candidates for ministry are now women. [3] It’s just different.

Money is an issue. Jesus doesn’t pay a whole lot these days. A majority of us serve congregations smaller than 300 members. So if we are married, our partners usually have careers too. Our families reflect the realities of making ends meet both financially and as parents (if we have kids). Like other professionals we will change jobs about 7 times in our lifetime, and 50-80% of us will ‘hang up the robe’ within 5 years.[4]

This means it is more difficult to pursue and maintain the long-term peer relationships imperative to the longevity of a healthy pastorate. We know we need them, but we struggle to find them and commit.

Yes, we love our phones.

We are connecting in broad ways.

No, it doesn’t replace the real stuff.

We know need to work on it.

It’s just a lot to juggle.

The call remains. We love to preach, and teach, and care.

Because of these rapid shifts, cultivating, planting, and renewing communities to engage those sacred privileges will require all of us. At the core of our identities as pastors is passion for the Reformed tradition, and love for the Gospel as it has been and always will be. We rely on them to root and guide us from generation to generation.

Problem is, we feel a gap.

Traditional pathways to trustworthy and organic cross-generational relationships have eroded alongside the cohesive and purposeful nature of the local presbytery. The fragmentation of both our regional and national networks increases the difficulty of accessing both practical knowledge and vital resources needed beyond seminary.

We need to know you.

We need to know what you know, because 

We don’t know, what we don’t know.

But you do.

Be patient if we seem too bold or not bold enough, too risky or not risky enough, too passive or too aggressive, too needy or too brash. Belonging breeds identity. While we are still getting used to our robes, it’s hard to trust when the communities and institutions around us feel unstable and fractured. Our ‘doing’ and ‘being’ are just beginning to click.

We need to be known, by people we can trust, in places we truly belong.

Yes it’s an investment, but if you are asked by a young pastor for your ear its because you are respected, honored, and valued as someone with something sacred to share. We need access to that. These relationships can’t be manufactured, but they can be cultivated.

There are NO WORDS to describe the gratitude for such a gift as a mentor’s attention and time.

Model grace, creativity, and hard work in your leadership, but don’t pretend to be Jesus. Show us what Sabbath looks like. Be honest. Any tips on how to work through a conflict are greatly appreciated. Tell the story of when you botched the funeral, forgot your sermon, or dropped the Cup. Teach us. Learn from us. Collaborate. Encourage risk. Support us when we fail. Share the sacraments and pulpit. Say YES. Listen. Hold us accountable. Most of all, expect the best for the future of our denomination and her churches.

We do.

With Great Hope,



(PS- To my mentors, there are no other words than, Thank You.)

[1] Yaconelli, Mark. www.thehearthstorytelling.wordpress.com

[2] Merritt, Carol Howard. The Christian Century blog. August 23, 2014

[3] PUCSA, research services. Comparative Stats Report, 2012.Pg. 10, Tables 7, 10.

[4] Hodge. The Pew Project. Duke Divinity School. Presented to the Religious Research As. Norfolk, GA. 2003, t.5-11.



A Letter to New Pastors

This month, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored. We kick things off this week with a post by George Anderson, the co-convener (along with Ken McFayden from UPSem) of the Trent Symposium for new pastors. Tomorrow, Lori Raible, a past Symposium participant will contribute a parallel piece.

george andersonGeorge C. Anderson is the Head of Staff of Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia.  George and the congregation he serves are heavily invested in programs for newly ordained PCUSA ministers.  Thanks to a Lilly study grant, George spent his recent sabbatical studying effective church programs in and outside of various denominations that nurture new pastors.  Through grants from the Kittye Susan Trent Endowment, Second Presbyterian hosts an annual week long symposium for new ministers that is co-sponsored by Union Presbyterian Seminary led primarily by experienced pastors and laypeople as well a colloquy for new ministers within the Presbytery of the Peaks that is spread out over three years.  Planned for April 18 through 21, 2016, a national Conference will be held called Trent@Montreat.  Sponsored by the NEXT Conference, Macedonian Ministries, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Montreat Conference Center, and Second Presbyterian Church, this conference will join large group worship and keynote with small groups focused on specific areas of need and coached by experienced practitioners.

George preached a sermon in which he explained his passion for this effort.  It can be accessed at: http://spres.org/media.php?pageID=24

photo credit: H is for Home via photopin cc

photo credit: H is for Home via photopin cc

Dear Newly Ordained Minister,

These are challenging and exciting times to serve the PCUSA, and you would like to serve it for a long time.   You can’t do it alone. You need a network of support to help you get started and to keep you going. That network of support is out there, but don’t expect it to be given to you.

Many new ministers do not understand this and feel abandoned after they leave seminary and begin their work in the field. They assume that the instruction, support and structure of seminary will continue in a new kind of way. Some efforts are made by presbyteries and, here and there, some are helpful. However, the PCUSA, like other mainline denominations, is having something of an identity crisis compounded by fiscal constraints, so there is a “hit and miss” aspect to what is officially offered.

For your own good, accept the reality of that right now. Remember that you are ordained and that means taking on personal responsibility for your own support. Just as medical ethicists encourage patients to be proactive about their own health care, I am encouraging you to be your own advocate for “Ministry Care.” Be proactive and seek out what you need.

So, what is it that you need? Based on what has sustained me over three decades of ministry and based on sabbatical research done on what sustains new ministers, I suggest the following:

  • Keep the Sabbath. Worship, rest, play.
  • Find coaches. They tell you how to do. What do you need to learn? Find someone who is really good at it. Then be a coach because by teaching, you learn.
  • Find mentors. They teach you how to be. Then be a mentor, because by leading, you find a new way to follow.
  • Seek out best practices. Most times it is easier to improve on something than invent something. Then share best practices because by giving away you gain colleagues and build the church you will need tomorrow.
  • Find or form a peer support group. If in a year it drains you more than feeds you, find or form another one.
  • Keep seeking to develop. I would say, “Keep seeking to improve,” but that may not be accurate. Let’s say, “Stay ahead of the stagnant curve.” The world, culture, the congregation, the church, and your life are going to keep developing. Ministries adapt or die. So read, attend continuing education events, self-examine, and seek critique and counsel. By doing so, you can help keep the expiration dates on your ministries in the future.
  • Be humble. That means pray, because humility is a gifted virtue and not an achievement. Keep praying the core of the prayer Jesus taught us: “Not my will, but thine.” Keep praying that prayer because if you are made a humble pastor, you will have staying power. A humble pastor knows she does not have all the answers. A humble pastor knows that on his own he will do more damage than good in the churches he serves. A humble pastor continually seeks out support, guidance and critique. A humble pastor better deals with and learns from failure. A humble pastor is more willing to share the credit with, and receive critique from, others.

When you have a good network of support in place, treat the network like a garden and tend it. Nourish what feeds you, weed out what doesn’t, and plant something new when it is time.   Tend the healthy garden and you will not only be nourished over a long ministry, you will share what you have with others and help them too.

I hope in these NEXT Church blogs, you’ll find some helpful gardening hints.

Grace and Peace,








Make Ready for Use

By Jessica Tate

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

I was installed into my first pastoral position seven years ago this month. During the sermon at the installation service, Frances Taylor Gench humorously suggested we install pastors the same way we install appliances. We “fix them into position” or “make them ready for use.”  That is exactly what we were doing at the installation of a pastor, she said.


As I think about the path of ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there’s much demanded of candidates to make them ready for use. Our church requires:

  • seminary education
  • psychological exams
  • continual discernment on the part of the candidate
  • validation by a candidate’s “home” church and presbytery
  • internships
  • written and oral statements and conversation with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry
  • ordination exams
  • a lengthy process of discerning a sense of call to a particular place—and hoping the nominating committee shares that sense of call
  • examination by the ordaining/installing presbytery

After that, a pastor is installed—we are made ready for use.

And then, at least in my experience, comes the hard part. We actually have to pastor a congregation.

It is a wonderful calling. It is grace-filled, transformative, and an immense privilege.

It is also hard.
To faithfully proclaim good news every week.
To navigate church conflicts and budgets and committees.
To learn a 24/7 rhythm and care for oneself in the midst of it.
To carry the emotional weight of the deepest parts of peoples’ lives—both the joyous and the jagged.

Many of us don’t survive the transition well.

According to Into Action: From Seminary to Ministry (which is a great online resource for new pastors), a recent study of PC(USA) pastors suggested that within five years of ordination, 22.5% of newly ordained pastors “had no valid call” or “were no longer ordained ministers in the PC(USA).” These categories include people who have retired, been defrocked, switched denominations, were unemployed, taking a break for personal reasons, as well as those who had chosen to permanently leave congregational ministry.

As best I can tell, these statistics are in line with other denominations and professional vocations, such as doctors and lawyers. Making the move from preparation to living out vocation is a hard transition.

Personally, I don’t know what I would have done in my first years of ministry if I didn’t have wonderful resources to call upon:

  • My father, who is a pastor, and who I could call at any hour, day or night, to say, “what do you do when a church preschool teacher commits suicide?” or the more mundane, “what resources do you have for stewardship?”
  • Mentors and seminary professors who were willing to puzzle through things with me. “Help me think about this conflict we’re dealing with in this committee.”
  • A wonderful colleague, Henry Brinton, the Head of Staff who patiently and gently guided me, supported me, and gave me plenty of space to stretch my wings.
  • Two peer groups I quickly joined—one locally that meets twice a month for spiritual practice, support, and accountability and one that meets annually to work on lectionary texts for preaching (and shares ideas the rest of the year via email.)
  • Community organizers who pushed me to grow as a leader and gave me the skills to become a better leader.
  • A cadre of spiritual directors, therapists and coaches to whom I turn periodically when I’m stuck or running on empty.

It was (and continues to be) this whole constellation that has enabled me to grow into my pastoral identity and practice. Most healthy pastors I know (regardless of how long they’ve been in ministry) have such a constellation. They’ve sought out these supports on their own and they’ve been given opportunities to be formed in pastoral identity and practice. This October, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within our denomination who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored. We’re trying to show some of the shape of the constellation in hopes that more and more of us will find and put together the networks we need to live into our calling in life-giving, gospel-proclaiming ways.

During the sermon on the occasion of my installation, Frances Taylor Gench referred back to the risen Lord’s command to his followers in the last scene of Matthew’s gospel: to make disciples of all nations. Our operating instructions, once we’ve been made ready for use, she said, is to make disciples, to disciple-ize. It is arduous work, she said, requiring stick-to-itiveness and endless repetition. “It means taking your time with people — bringing them along — working carefully with each other over a long period of time in the educative process of teaching and learning the pattern of life embodied and empowered by Jesus.”

This month, I honor the anniversary of my ordination. I am grateful for all those who taught me and continue to teach me how to disciple-ize, how to stick with it when it is hard, and find joy in the midst of this calling.  And I am hopeful for all those who are “made ready for use” and the ways in which we support them, form them, and are led by them.

Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church.