How to: Hold an IAF-style Evaluation

So you’ve finished your experimental worship service / high tension meeting / community event celebrating a new partnership. What happens next? For many, we think to ourselves, “That was interesting,” or “What’s next?” and continue on our way without reflecting more deeply. Industrial Areas Foundation founder Saul Alinksy calls out church leaders for leaving un-evaluated events as “a pile of undigested happenings.” By incorporating time for reflection and evaluation into our routine life, we are better able to learn from our experiences and add to our store of social knowledge. How do we do this?

  1. Immediately after the event, gather your community–folks who planned or led the event, participants, insiders and outsiders, etc. (Learn more about why it’s important to include a diverse group here.)
  2. Ask everyone for one word or phrase that describes how they are feeling. In a group of twenty people, you will have twenty different experiences of and responses to the same event. Hold everyone to one word or phrase (or less than 30 seconds.) The purpose of doing rounds in this way is to gauge the temperature of the room and encourage leaders to share honestly about their experience.
  3. Review your big picture goals or objectives for the event–were they met? (Ex: Was there an exchange of power? What did you do well? Where was the learning?)
  4. Check in about specific details–if you were to repeat this event, what logistical adjustments would you make based on today’s experience? (Were you adequately prepared? What research will you need to complete before moving forward?)
  5. Continue looking back and evaluating two weeks out, two months out, etc. to think about the event’s effectiveness over time.

For more guidance, check out this IAF resource.

Go forth and evaluate!

Commissioned by Our Mental Illness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Marielle (Marz) Evans

Even after all this time, it is still hard to say it.

It is hard to confess, to admit, to say aloud: I am mentally ill.

Maybe it is hard because it feels somehow dishonest, like a white lie that excuses my little quirks. Because, on my meds, I function and behave most of the time like a perfectly normal, if not high functioning, adult woman.

Or maybe it is hard because it feels too true — because I know how it is to live inside my own head, to worry about whether I’ve missed a dose of my meds, to not being able to tell my husband what is wrong because I don’t know what is wrong— it just is. I know the struggle all too well and it’s hard to say that things aren’t okay. I struggle with that black hole of depression that threatens to swallow me whole and I grapple with the high of mania that promises roads paved in gold but ending in ruin.

And I struggle with opening my mouth and saying words like: bipolar, anxiety, depression, and saying words like: me, in the same sentence.

I had a dear friend tell me once that me being honest about my bipolar disorder changed the way she looked at mental illness and gave her the courage to step into counseling for the first time. And that’s the best result I could ask for. If my story can battle the stigma against the mentally ill in any small way, it was so worth it.

But I’ve also had a dear friend tell me that she couldn’t handle me, handle my illness, my mood swings, my panic attacks. I’ve lost friendships because of my brain chemistry. Because of being an emergency. Because I was too much to deal with. Because their versions of Christianity don’t have room for a person like me — a crazy person.

And so, with the hope of encouraging others but walking with those wounds of rejection and hurt still healing on my heart, I shyly confess that I am stable, I am happy, I am in love and I am mentally ill.

And I may be forever. My brain chemistry may never be correct (and I thank God for my meds every single day).

But here I am, saying it aloud. Because these things are worth talking about, even if it terrifies you. Because we, all of us — whether you are clinically depressed or just having a bad day — need to be reminded that we aren’t alone in this. And we must — MUST — remind each other that our diagnoses, our diseases, our disabilities do not define us.

I am not a bipolar woman.

I am a wife, a pastor, an artist, a darn good cook, a writer, an aunt to two amazing littles, a mediocre iPhone photographer, a terrible but shameless dancer. I am a Princeton Seminary graduate, an honors student (in too many ways), a lover of summer-ripe cherries and old rocking chairs and porch swings and those bottle cap candies that taste kind of like soda. I am a mom to my puppy, Eliot, who is more monster than dog and who believes that he is also the size of a mouse and can sit comfortably on our laps.

And I have a diagnoses. Of bi-polar, for which I take daily meds that help me not let my serotonin and dopamine levels determine how my life goes.

It is not who I am, or what I am. My bipolar is a part of me. Just like that slightly annoying scar in the middle of my chest from when I had chicken pox as a little kid. It is not my fault, or my parent’s fault, or red food dye 40’s fault (in my humble opinion). It is life – just with more extreme ups and downs.

So if you are where I often am, and finding it hard to say aloud that you are hurting, struggling, scared, scarred, sadder more days than you are happy— then take heart. Truly — take heart. There are many of us, and we are not alone.

And please, if you can, if that black hole that threatens to swallow you from within will allow just a little bit — have grace with yourself. And allow yourself the grace of letting someone in. Into the mess and the madness. Into the mood swings and the medication diaries. Into the altogether hard and the sometimes hopeless. Into the mental illness that doesn’t define you but certainly feels definite.

You don’t have to shout it from the roof tops, but I invite you to maybe tell a friend. Tell a pastor or a mentor or a professor who you know won’t laugh you out of the room. And if you don’t feel safe with any of those, find a therapist. Yelp them, Google the good Lord out of them, look up whether they’ll be a fit. You are the only one who knows you inside and out, so don’t feel like they are going to fix you.

Because the truth is: you don’t need fixing, you need a safe place to say aloud the things that are hard to say.

Have grace with yourself, and you’ll get there. Some days will be harder than others— just ask my husband and friends and mentors. Some days will be so good that you’ll completely forget you ever had a diagnosis from the DSM. Those days you’ll forget to take your meds — because: what meds!?— and then you’ll wake up in the morning with a headache and take them right away and everything will be okay. Or maybe it won’t. Because meds don’t make real life go away. And sometimes real life is sorrow and lament and quiet and hard. And a handful of chemicals isn’t going to take away the pain and the sin of this broken world.

I want you to know that you are not alone. That your sadness doesn’t define you. Nor do your meds. Your panic attacks don’t either, nor how long you’ve been sober (although sobriety is certainly something to celebrate). Psychological diagnoses don’t define us anymore than type 1 diabetes or turf toe does. They are all chronic illnesses. They are all not our fault.

I may have a hard time saying aloud what I want to say sometimes. I may struggle to speak up about my experience of living life with chronic anxiety and persistent mood swings.

But I refuse to be silent about this. About the fact that there is hope, and there is healing, and that we have the choice to believe that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet. I refuse to shut up about why cooking a meal for friends is nearly as effective for me as my mood stablizer, or why writing is a version of therapy. I refuse to be silent about being a pastor and being a patient of a psychologist and psychiatrist because those two can happen together and it will be okay. I refuse to be silent in telling the world that stories, your everyday stories, matter. Your stories and your scars and your big scary dreams all matter because they bring something new and needed to the table of grace. We have an opportunity to see our diagnoses, our depression, our daily meds or weekly therapy sessions (or both) as the commissioning they are. We are commissioned by our mental illness to go out into the world and show them, tell them, sing at them, dance for them, preach to them that we are not defined, we are not limited by our diseases.

So, where ever you are in your journey, say this aloud with me: this is living thing is an adventure worth taking. And there is a mission field to serve that needs people like you and me, to bring the Gospel that Jesus didn’t come to the perfect, but to the sick and that God has a place for those of us who come into His kingdom with a bit of a limp.

Marielle Evans

Marielle (Marz) Evans is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who is serving at a non-profit for youth development in Austin, TX

Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism

By Ronald P. Byars

The morning newspaper reports that local “Christians” are rallying in opposition because a small, tourist-friendly town in Arkansas wants to pass an ordinance that forbids discrimination against gay people. This is but one more example of how the word “Christian” has, over recent decades, been co-opted by those religious people most likely to espouse traditionalist views with respect to gender equality, same-sex relationships, reproductive issues, and the privileging of their faith in schools and other shared public spaces. Mainstream Protestants—those who identify as heirs of the 16th century Reformations—find that they have become nearly invisible, marginalized in the very culture in which they had enjoyed special status since before the origins of the republic.

Puzzled and even horrified by the narrowed definition of “Christian,” mainstream Protestants recoil from the positions of those who have so successfully displaced them in the public eye. Under the circumstances, it is easy to see the world as one divided between two antithetical parties: the “fundamentalists,” on the one hand (whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic), and those who are not fundamentalists, on the other. Awkwardly, we mainstream Protestants find ourselves lumped indiscriminately with the non-fundamentalists, allies of those who are skeptical or indifferent to any sort of religious faith—including our own.

When it feels imperative to distinguish ourselves from aggressively defensive forms of religious faith, the temptation is to declare open warfare. Open warfare may sometimes be necessary, but it tends to be ugly; and nuanced arguments don’t play well in the press or in meetings of the school board. There are no winners. The alternative is to keep our heads down in hopes that our allies, the skeptics (many of whom are in our pews), may not notice the things we have in common with our opponents, such as: creation, redemption, consummation; incarnation; Holy Trinity; ultimate justice. Keeping our heads down seems easy enough, and unobtrusive besides. It usually unfolds not as an intentional strategy, but an unconscious one, an almost unnoticeable shift of accent in our preaching and teaching, leaning toward those aspects of the faith that are not likely to alienate those of a skeptical mind.

Many of our own constituents find Christianity attractive insofar as it is understood as a moral project, a civic-minded enterprise, doing good in the community; or, perhaps, as a therapeutic movement to counter stress and enhance self-esteem; or even an engine helping to drive a positive political agenda. Americans are inclined to respond readily to calls to build a Habitat house, provide shelter for the homeless, support a soup kitchen or a food pantry, or join in an effort to lobby public officials. Such projects are natural moves for followers of Jesus Christ, while also appealing to well-meaning people for whom theology seems unwelcome, or obscure, incomprehensible, or irrelevant.

However, the poet Christian Wiman provides a useful warning when he observes that “churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall.”(1 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 138.) Wiman may be indulging in a bit of hyperbole, but his observation is a useful shot across the bow. It is easier than one might imagine to fall into a practice of avoiding or softening the hard claims of Christian faith, most especially those that have to do with the identity and authority of its central figure, Jesus Christ. After all, the Bible is full of wise counsel, exhortations about doing good, and observations about human nature that are not typically controversial. Sensitive to skepticism in the pews and among those we might recruit to fill the empty places, and worried about the church’s decline in numbers and influence, those with responsible positions in the church may not even notice the drift toward a version of Christianity that is individualistic, non-doctrinal, eclectic, non-institutional, and immune from objective critique (since it is entirely personal). To advocate for “spirituality” alongside good works is always safe and culturally acceptable, while not requiring any overt denial of the Church’s “official” theology.

Pastors these days tend to become uncomfortably familiar with a certain measure of desperation (something with which I am personally acquainted). But desperation easily leads to hasty decisions, including even decisions that were never really consciously decided. It has become inescapably obvious that the larger culture, though not necessarily antagonistic, has withdrawn its support for religious faith. Centuries during which we presumed that society’s support would undergird the church’s efforts to reproduce itself and its faith have given way to a quite different moment. The fact that the dominant plausibility structure has shifted in favor of the skeptics has left us badly prepared for a new era. The market is overflowing with “expert” advice about how the church might regain influence and make the numbers go up, and a lot of such counsel involves reshaping the church, its faith, and its worship so as to conform more nearly to the tastes and expectations of those already formed by the dominant culture. In short, the desperate are exhorted to get with the program of acknowledging what “everybody knows” to be true.

What “everybody knows” is that, if we want to know something, we need to approach it from a position of detachment, neutrality, distance. In other words, to presume that some version of the scientific method is the only way people can know anything with confidence. To affirm God, then, must require the same sort of evidence as testing the laws of thermodynamics does. And “everybody knows” that it is the individual’s duty to discover and affirm her/his personal authority, distrusting institutions and organized groups. “No one is going to tell me what to think.” (Although there is no evidence that persons learn to navigate the world entirely on their own, as though having had no experience of formative communities.)

But communities cannot be written off as simply oppressive and restrictive. It seems to me more persuasive to believe that communities are essential to our growth toward any kind of human fullness. Tarzan, raising himself in the jungle, may discover useful technologies for survival, but he will not invent a civilization on his own. Insofar as communities enrich our experience and help us to acquire ways of seeing and hearing that might otherwise escape us, they are not obstacles, but bridges. Everyone needs a mentor, whether formally or informally. One of the church’s roles is to serve as mentor for those who sense that there is something more, and could use help in learning a language and perspective that might illuminate what that might be.

To the Christian, Jesus speaks with an authority that is persuasive while entirely without coercion, and Jesus Christ is, in his person as well as in his words, authoritative. It is that person whose voice is meant to be heard, pondered, articulated and embodied by the community that has been called out to serve as a shelter, guide, and communal mentor.

Rather than engaging in open warfare with authoritarian religion, on the one hand; or, on the other, muting or hiding the deepest affirmations of the gospel, it would seem a better path for those churches that value catholicity in a reforming way to identify ourselves by what we are for rather than what we are against. The best antidote to fundamentalisms is the affirmation of a faith that has its roots planted in classical, ecumenical Christian tradition. This faith might be called, in shorthand, “orthodox,” even though that label is out of favor, for understandable reasons. Orthodox Christianity, rooted in worship in Word and Sacrament, Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, and responsible communal governance and oversight, identifies foundational landmarks with which catholic and reforming Christians have to do. Such orthodoxy is neither conservative, liberal, or “progressive,” and yet it may become any or all of those things depending on the context. Easy labels are misleading and irrelevant. The point of classic Christian thought and devotion is not to beat the drums for a God who’s the enforcer, out to stomp on those who are mistaken or on the wrong side in the culture wars, but to point with confidence to the triune God who is both ethically serious and extravagantly gracious: the God to whom Scripture and Church testify with the help of nuanced, often paradoxical language.

A generous orthodoxy is roomier and more spacious than any fundamentalism, whether a religious fundamentalism or an equally over-confident skeptical counterpart. At the same time, a generous orthodoxy takes the risk of linking arms with folks from many times and places who share a community of discourse and devotion, not starting from scratch every time a new question arises, but pursuing the conversation according to its inner logic and imperatives. It will always be necessary to find speech adequate to add to or amplify what has already been said, while honoring what has been said already.

As we feel our way into an era that is quite different from centuries of establishment status, the challenge is to learn how to navigate an environment that is not identical either to the Constantinian or pre-Constantinian eras, but is perhaps coming to resemble the latter more than the former. The New Testament was written to speak to a church that did not expect either to claim special privilege in society, or to conform to what “everybody” in a dominant culture “knows” to be true. The church does not have to be center-stage to listen and hear what God may be calling us to be and do now. There is nothing that we have lost that we have to try to get back, unless it might be a deeper confidence in the faithful God who shows up in a wilderness.

Ronald ByarsRonald Byars is Professor Emeritus in Union Presbyterian Seminary. This essay is drawn from themes in his recent book, Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism (Cascade, 2015).

The Rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Matt Gaventa

I always know when Philip’s in church, because the Lord’s Prayer throws him off every time.

Admittedly, it’s not a large congregation: on most Sunday we’re not two verses into the opening hymn before I’ve taken a mental attendance of everyone in the pews. But just in case I’ve missed him, the Lord’s Prayer is when Philip – which is not his real name – makes his presence known.

He can’t quite say it in time with the rest of us. He can’t quite keep the rhythm. If I speed up, he slows down. If I slow down, he jumps ahead. I lead the congregation; we go along more or less like we always do; but Philip just goes by his own beat.

It’s a very public act, of course, breaking against the conventional rhythm of the corporate prayer. There’s no hiding. Everybody in the orchestra knows when the trumpet is off the beat. And I know that it disturbs the sacred harmony of that moment for more than a few members of our congregation. This is ritualized stuff. It’s not just the rhythm of a prayer; it’s the rhythm of  devotional Christian life, it’s the metronome of Sunday morning that threads our faith journeys together. So much changes, but we always sing the Doxology, and we always say the Lord’s Prayer. These things stay constant, and the bit nobody wants to say out loud is that he is getting in the way.

Nobody will admit that at the door, of course. We have nothing if not the hospitality of a small church anxious about its future. Before church, Philip is greeted with a friendly smile. We know his name, and we know where he likes to sit. Afterwards, he’s always invited to coffee hour, and I know somebody will always find him with friendly conversation. But during that hour of worship, I also know that it feels different. I see it on faces in the congregation; maybe I even see it in my own heart. The Lord’s Prayer comes along, and there goes Philip, and I can hear us asking despite ourselves, “Why can’t he just say the words the same way as everybody else?”

Of course, Philip can’t follow the beat of the prayer because he’s mentally ill. He needs to be able to hear his own voice. He needs to be able to use his own words. It hardly surprises me that he wants to march along to the beat of his own drum. What surprises me more profoundly is that any of the rest of us manage to say the prayer together in the first place. After all, Philip is hardly the only one who brings his demons with him on Sunday morning. Perhaps the only difference is that Philip wears his on the outside.

About a year ago, I preached a sermon to this congregation on mental illness and my own family history with clinical depression. It was a more personal testimony than I am accustomed to giving from the pulpit, and it was terrifying, but I thought it was right for this long process of learning to trust and be trusted by the people I have been called to serve. It was the last conscious step in telling them my story, which is, among other things, the story of a son who survived his father’s own crippling depression, one who knows that shadow a little too well.

One of the predictable-in-hindsight consequences of that sermon was that more than a few members of the church came forward to tell me about their own hidden battles: anxiety, mood disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts. All of those demons of mental illness that stay nicely hidden underneath the surface – and it turns out that they live in every corner of my church. It turns out that more than a few of us are bringing the demons of mental illness into the pews of Sunday worship. It turns out that the ability to come to church and stay on the beat in a corporate liturgy is no guarantee of mental health.

It turns out that Philip is in good company. We just don’t want to admit it.

Of course there are real differences between Philip’s diagnosis and the hidden struggles of those with anxiety disorders or clinical depression. Not all mental health disorders are created equal. For a start, Philip lives his struggle in the public eye, while depression and anxiety cling to the shadows — and of course that’s just the beginning. But now I know, more than ever: come Sunday morning, we’re all sitting in the same pews. We’re all gathering around the same baptismal waters. We’re all sharing at the same table.

And we’re all coming to the Lord’s Prayer with the same fear and trembling. For some it’s the rhythm, and they just can’t keep the beat. For others, it’s in the words, it’s this staggering sure faith in a God who gives daily bread even to those lost in the shadows. I wish it could be as easy to notice those who cannot say the words at all as it is to be disturbed by the one who can only say them in his own time.

Nonetheless, this Sunday, we will try again. We come back, every Sunday, each in our own way. We come back every Sunday, each by our own path. We come back, every Sunday, and the prayer throws us off every time.

gaventa_matt_631wMatt Gaventa serves as pastor at Amherst Presbyterian Church in Amherst, VA.


I Didn’t Know How

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Erin Counihan

I didn’t know how to talk about it.

I was finishing my last semester of seminary and looking for my first call, writing cover letters, updating my sad little website, and horrible pause-filled Skype-interviewing my future pastor heart out. I had worked up a standard set of non-threatening, but honest answers to the big theological issues I was certain to be asked on worship and sacraments and hospitality and marriage and ordination standards. I had most of the conversations covered and rehearsed, but all the while I carried a desperate stress and raging pounding in my heart because I didn’t know how to talk about the one thing that I thought would actually keep me from getting a job.

I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs.

I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs and I had no idea how to share this, how to talk about this, without judgement on my kid, or my own parenting, with kind, hopeful church people. With kind, hopeful church people looking for a pastor.

I didn’t know how to explain what our life is like. I didn’t know how to warn them that we would never be that perfect pastor’s family, not that the perfect pastor’s family really exists anywhere, but I wasn’t sure how to them that we weren’t even going to try to come anywhere close to fitting that image. I didn’t know how to share our history. I didn’t know how to clue them into our struggles. I didn’t know how to explain all the appointments and medications, diagnoses and treatment programs, behavior modifications and safety plans, but most of all the potential outbursts and disruptions. I didn’t know how to tell them about off-meds days, and didn’t want to scare them away from missing all her wonderful days. I didn’t want to say too much, in case they might see her as just her diagnoses, but I didn’t want to say too little and leave them unprepared or worse, to have my kid feel like it was a secret.

I didn’t know how to ask them for understanding and support, for middle of the night phone calls and weekend check-ins. I didn’t know how to tell them how very much I needed to find a church family where my kid could be her full self and be fully loved and celebrated. I didn’t know how to tell them how much I needed a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with mental illness; a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with us.

I never really figured out how to say all of that in a non-threatening, but honest way, so instead I blurted it all out, through some tears, during my on-site interview at the perfectly messy and lovely church that God picked out for us. Together, we are learning to be less afraid of that conversation. They’ve welcomed us and have already walked with us through the successes and struggles of our reality. And when much later, months after I was installed, on a bad week, I was brutally honest and told them my biggest fear, that the pastor’s kid would have a mental health emergency at church and it might cost that pastor her job, the now dear and beloved chair of that PNC told me in no uncertain terms: this church can handle that.

I’m still scared to talk about it. I am still worried that people will judge my kid. I am sure they’ll judge my parenting. And if I feel that way as the pastor, I can imagine there are others in our churches who feel that way too.

I don’t think we talk about mental health in church enough. I’m sure we don’t do enough to support individuals and families with mental health needs. I am not sure we know how. I know I don’t know how.

I want to do more. To help my own kid and all of God’s kids. So, I’ve asked a couple of friends a colleagues and perfect strangers to share their thoughts about what churches can be doing, what churches are doing, and what churches might do more of, to be more open to and supportive of those with mental health needs. I look forward to listening to their experiences, to hearing their suggestions, and just engaging in the conversation.

Because I’m trying, but I still don’t know how to talk about it.


Erin Counihan serves as pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO and will be curating the NEXT Blog this month.

YAVs Connecting with Community (Part II)

By Marranda Major

We began this endeavor with the best of intentions. Through service, we hoped to spend the last few months of our YAV year connecting more deeply with our neighborhood (you can read more about our intention in this previous post). I hoped our experience would yield some good insights for congregations who are similarly interested in engaging more deeply with their neighborhood contexts. However, we’ve encountered many roadblocks before we could even begin. Most of our neighborhood’s community agencies require at least six weeks lead time to set up a volunteer opportunity. Who knew that it would take this much advanced planning to offer up our time? Ironically, we, who are full-time volunteers, didn’t have a clue… Let the learning begin: building relationships – even tangentially to offer time and labor – takes time.

We’ve had one community engagement project so far: on a recent Friday we visited the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s demonstration plot at the Mamie D. Lee Community Garden. After a quick orientation, we divided into groups. Some of us loaded wheelbarrows with wood-chips while others set off to weed and turn over the paths that run through the garden plots. Together, we helped to tidy the paths around the exhibition garden to make it easier for volunteers and student gardeners to navigate. After completing the more labor-intensive tasks of neatening paths and preparing new beds, we enjoyed planting yard-long beans, basil, and chard. We finished our morning at the gardening by harvesting some red lettuce to take home for our YAV community meal.

Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

(Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis)

So, what learning and questions from the garden can we transplant to church life?

  1. We used two different techniques for planting seeds: careful measuring and kamikaze scattering. The yard long beans were inserted precisely 4 inches apart in rows that were 10 inches apart, with a clearly defined process of one person laying the row and the next following behind to cover the seeds with dirt. The chard and basil, however, were scattered at random, comingling in each bed with other herbs and vegetables that were already at their peak.

Of these two approaches, the scatter widely method most closely resembles how we went about setting up these community engagement days, and as we’ve been disappointed with the results, I’m curious what would have happened if we had taken a more intentional approach? We cast the net wide and made a lot of phone calls to the community groups that we spotted during our boundary-walk, however, we got very few return phone calls and emails. I wonder if we would have had more success in building relationships if we had first setting up meetings with volunteer coordinators to explain our context as well as our hopes for our community partnership.

Unlike the parable of the sower (Mark 4:10—20), we can attest that our soil samples are neutral; however, we will have left DC by the time our basil, chard, and yard-long beans are ready to harvest, so we will not know which approach yielded more produce.

  1. Weeds are not the insidious trespassers I imagined, but simply plants that are thriving in a space you intended for another plant. NFI’s Volunteer Coordinator, Caroline, led us on a tour of the edible weeds native to DC—from mint to coriander seed to purslane and lemon balm. We were delighted by the bounty of flavor and texture. We learned that other weeds, like hairy vetch, are desirable because they are good crop covers and attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. This makes pulling weeds less the zero-sum challenge I had expected, and more a test of the gardener’s discretion to know the ideal time to pull specific weeds in each particular location.

From my previous YAV experience doing youth work, I know that it’s tempting to view other extra-curricular activities as competition for our youths’ limited time—weeds, thriving while we are focused solely on surviving. But what if we instead considered the holistic benefits our youth receive from participating in many different activities? While hockey builds discipline and teamwork, theater nurtures creativity and confidence—what will our youth groups develop and grow? Are there symbiotic relationships that we can encourage—a post-practice Bible study or habit of the entire group showing up for big games and performances to show support?

  1. You can pile a LOT of woodchips into a wheelbarrow, but once in motion, content spills. And, should you happen across a bump in the road, you may lose more than you keep. Loading the wheelbarrow becomes a game of balance.

In church life, we are too familiar with this balancing game. Our programs and support structures are necessary for keeping up the life of the Church; however, we must tread carefully as not to be so bogged down that we sacrifice our nimbleness, flexibility, or ability to adapt to new challenges else we will not be able to continue.

  1. Clearing the beds for planting requires using pitchforks to break up the roots of the existing ground cover, teasing out the excess weeds, and churning the earth. The weeds are then added to the compost bin so that as they decay, they could continue to give life to the garden as they pass on nutrients to new seedlings.

When programs have fulfilled their purpose and it’s time to end them, what learning will continue to enrich and nourish the life of the church? How can we honor the memory of and continue the meaningful work of groups like a dwindling local chapter of Presbyterian Women or the once vibrant mission effort once the groups themselves become unsustainable?

There is much to learn from gardening: Jesus used the garden as an illustration in many parables to teach early Christians about the kindom of God. Our time in the garden dug up some questions of how we can continue to be Church today, and planted seeds for future volunteers to grow into relationship with this community. Most importantly, gardening let us connect with our Brightwood Park community by helping our neighbors access local, nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Marranda Major

Marranda Major is serving in Washington, D.C. as the Young Adult Volunteer placed with NEXT Church. While Marranda is sad to be leaving NEXT in a few weeks, she is excited to begin studying for her MDiv at Union Theological Seminary in New York City!

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 4

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the conclusion of a four part series. Read part 1 herepart 2 here, and part 3 here

By Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Making the Thurman Connections

Thurman had the uncanny and prophetic ability to make a connection between the silence and scrutiny of one’s inner life with the work for social justice. He encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Movement to utilize contemplative practices. In particular, Thurman stressed the importance for marchers to examine their inward journeys and to use nonviolent responses to what was often very violent confrontation.

In light of this, Lerita and Jacquelyn designed a workshop to share with participants the social advocacy of Howard Thurman through group reading and reflections of excerpts from lectures, sermons, or meditations by Thurman. Participants engaged in reflections on their own ways of using the contemplative to prepare themselves spiritually for their call to engage in the work of non-violent and transformative responses to racial oppression.

The focus on Howard Thurman in this workshop was no coincidence. Clearly, his social justice gospel continues to serve as both an unofficial spiritual director for the Civil Rights Movement of those who were and continue to be marginalized or disinherited. Thurman was on the fringe even in doing what he felt called to do; yet, his “voice” was heard and continues to be heard throughout the world.


Lerita Coleman BrownLerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 3

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a four part series. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here

By Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Jacquelyn:  “Social Justice as a Lived Experience/ The Contemplative as a Learned Process”

Memories of my introduction to social justice activism begin with the Civil Rights/Racial Justice Movement of the 60s that was based in the African American church. To a large extent, this movement was an outgrowth of that very same source to which I link my involvement with the contemplative.

It was my father, Jack Smith, Jr., who exposed me to the movement and to a key community-based organization, the NAACP Youth Division, which taught me about the “contemplative in action.” The leaders in the organization did this by training and preparing us for the picketing, demonstrations, marches, and other acts of nonviolent resistance to forced segregation and unequal access to resources that were available to white people; e.g., schools, hotels/motels, restaurants, housing, employment in department stores (especially women’s shops), and more.

This took place several years before the huge cross-burning in front of the house, located at the end of a predominantly white neighborhood; we were purchasing it through a white realtor. The incident occurred the week before our family and that of a family friend were to have moved into our “new to us” duplex that was located at the end of a street in an all-white neighborhood.

Many years later, I “met” Howard Thurman in my search for a theology with which I felt “at home”—one which offered me both the freedom to connect with another dimension of my spiritual self and do so within the context of myself as an African American woman—tapping my inner and outer existence. I had found many books that supported my search for clarity around my theology and spirituality, but never with racial reflections of myself. The images were of European/White Americans or people from the Eastern religions. This included Joel Goldsmith, Thomas Merton, and others.

While addressing one aspect of my being, this was not sufficient for me as one who had become disillusioned with institutional religion after encountering subtle and stinging acts of racism in the college church I attended during my undergraduate years.

When I discovered Thurman, it was like the situation for the woman with the issue of blood. I found a theologian, who chose to engage in work that would speak to me as an African American woman on my quest for centeredness through a contemplative experience as a path to inner peace, joy, and power. He wrote about this desire—especially for oppressed people—in Jesus and the Disinherited, which became a cherished favorite of Dr. King, and one that he carried whenever he marched.

In the next blog, we will make the connections….


Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.