Picking Up the Pace

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Amanda Pine is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Amanda Pine

November and December always pass by in a blur of gift wrap, family gatherings, and huge church events. While I keep my Sunrise calendar on my phone (best app ever, seriously try it!) updated with the various work and social engagements that stack up in the holiday season, the stress that comes along with getting the perfect presents and planning the perfect Advent event cannot be managed by an app. My outlet for releasing stress this holiday season is running.

I have signed up for a ten mile race in February, and while that is by far the longest distance I have ever run, the training process has proved to be the greatest stress relief this winter. As part of the process, I have started running three days a week. My time running allows me to collect my thoughts, take time for myself, and nurture my body in a time that is overridden with stress. Exercise has become a part of my spiritual practice and the saving grace of my ministry this holiday season!

Amanda PineAmanda Pine lives at the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, Virginia with her husband and cat. She is a seminary student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and is currently serving as Director of Christian Education at Great Bridge United Methodist Church. She is co-leading a workshop entitled “Youth Ministry Beyond the Bubble” at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering.

God Is More Than the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Jessica Vasquez Torres is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Jessica Vasquez Torres

What is saving my ministry right now? This is such an interesting question given the assumptions it holds particularly by the use of the word “saving.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary “to save” means to protect from harm, to prevent waste, and/or keep things for future use. So I must rephrase the question and ask it in its fullness. What is protecting my ministry from harm? What is preventing me from wasting it or at least from wasting my energy in the living of my vocation? What is allowing me to conserve or keep a vision of the church for future use in the exercise of my sense of call?

jessica savingThese questions then must be asked in the context of a nation gripped by xenophobic thinking and imagery and of increasing islamophobia, with a rise in the visibility of overtly racist white nationalists groups where people of color, particularly African Americans, are presumed to be dangerous threats to public safety and therefore expendable and in which class, gender, and race disparities reveal the cracks in the armor of our so called democracy.

For me, the answer to these questions is my participation in a community of queer and straight organizers, critical thinker and theorists, visionaries, educators, and strategic thinkers of every walk of life and faith who are explicitly committed to the eradication of white supremacy and the restoration of creation for every living thing. For me it is a systemic analysis of white supremacy that demands movement away from thin ideas about the efficacy of diversity efforts and a move toward thicker frameworks and analysis which call out the ways in which the church is systemically complicit in the maintenance of racism and other forms of systemic oppression. I think of the application of this analysis as a spiritual practice that grounds me in reality and frees my imagination. What is saving my ministry is an understanding, emerged from 15 years of work in the field of antiracism and institutional transformation, that God is more than the church and that for the church to be a partner the in-breaking of the kin-dom of God on this earth it will have to let go of much of the cultural and institutional practices that hold it captive to white supremacy. It is this realization that has given direction, focus, and renewing energy to my ministry for more than a decade.

Jessica Vazquez TorresJessica Vasquez Torres is a proven leader with 15 years experience in antiracism, anti-oppression, and cultural competency workshop development and facilitation. Jessica, a 1.5-Generation ESL Queer Latina of Puerto Rican descent, holds a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Central Florida, a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary, and a Master of Theological Studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She is speaking and leading a workshop “Strategic Interventions to Make Diverse Community” at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Greatest Hit: Challenges of Membership

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on the challenges of membership is one of our most popular posts on the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable (2013) regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership. And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.” In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that elders, deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues – not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in sync with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church.” We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?” This allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us,” then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with the pastor to discuss faith and life in the church.
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership.
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individuals right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)

After serving in her first call at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie, Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother. Leslie is on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.


Looking for more? Check out these resources on church growth and new members:

Gospel Abundance

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Christopher Edmonston

By any worldly measure, ministry has been good to me. Ministry is also a struggle. In nearly two decades of pastoral ministry, I have learned that this vocation is not for the faint of heart. It requires an ever varied and always shifting skill set. Further, its variable nature requires immense amounts of patience. This is a rewarding vocation; it rewards like no other. But it also demands. The pastoral life demands the whole self. When God calls a pastor, God calls every bit of the person.

A staff member at Union Presbyterian Seminary once told me that in her opinion the best pastors were those who had been dragged into pastoral ministry kicking and screaming. That is certainly the case for me. As a younger man I believed that I would be a member of the academy. The long arc of vocational life has stationed me in a different place. And, in spite of my success, many days have been confusing and frustrating when “church” does not meet hopes or expectations.

white memorial abundanceLike every other pastor I know, I long for a church consumed with the pursuit of the abundance of Spirit, community, and ministry. This church would possess dexterity, be pliable, and employ the capacity to shift in ever abundant directions when called and required to do so.

Unfortunately, much of the malaise of mainline communities (structurally, institutionally) seems the result of the opposite. Church structures are often inflexible and reluctant to change something so simple as the carpet (to mention nothing of strategic and adaptive shifts towards abundant ministry and living).

Five years ago I heard Tom Currie, then the Dean at Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, deliver an address about the life of ministry. His first thesis was that ministry was embarrassing in the post-modern world. The moment he made this statement, my eyes welled with tears. There is an irrationality to ministry that is hard to grapple. There is enduring frustration with the monolithically negative portrayals of church in both the media and in intellectual circles. It is many the pastor (including Bonhoeffer) who has heard either directly or under the breath: “I would have thought someone with your mind and skills would have been a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur.…”

Twelve months ago I met with a group of Christian scholars, pastors, and divinity school administrators. Convened to talk about the next era of congregational life and church growth, we met a pastor named Michael Mather from Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Mather asked us, “what if the church actually acted as if the gospel were true?”

That reminder of God’s abundance — gospel abundance in our midst — has been saving me ever since.

Mather inspired us to think about the gifts we had, and the gifts of our congregations and colleges. “Stop focusing on what cannot be accomplished,” he said. Instead, he offered a rubric of how the inspiration of the gospel, in tandem with the gifts that the Holy Spirit was fostering and cultivating, could be a gateway to new life. In this way, he showed us that faith communities could be, literally, born again.

I was so moved by this simple shift in thinking that the theme of all my fall preaching was abundance. I took on his challenge and preached a sermon for the Presbytery of New Hope completely framed around that centralizing question, “what if the church actually acted as if they gospel were true?”. The sermon was met with resounding “Amens!” For southern Presbyterians, this was a near-miracle.

Before our congregation and with our staff I explored the abundance in Christian theology and the aspiration to abundance of the Christian life. I kept going back to the “leading questions of life.”* Just that “script flip” — from focusing on why we are dying (causes of death) to investing intellectual and theological energies toward life-giving practices — allowed for greater understanding of my own gifts, our congregation’s gifts, and what life we had to offer as an act of kingdom devotion.

This one-day encounter saved my ministry last year. It kept my head above water as I navigated the seas of marriage, of divestment, and of our particular congregational challenges. On the days when the tyranny of the urgent is indeed a tyrant, and negative voices threaten to overwhelm, I choose to focus upon abundance. After all, even on our worst days, Jesus Christ is not particularly interested in our complaints. Instead, he is interested in our gifts.

Given that the gospel is true, our ministries are saved by allowing the abundant grace of the Lord to reset our expectations and to reassess the tasks which are before us. Ultimately ministry is about the gifts and not the frustrations.

* I recommend the book, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray

EdmonstonChristopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.


Greatest Hit: Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple… Re-Writing the Rhyme

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on welcoming guests to worship is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Ashley-Anne Masters

A little rhyme I learned as a child goes like this, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” There are hand gestures to go along with it to up the dexterity ante: Face hands toward each other. Lock fingers together facing down. Hold both index fingers straight up against each other. Fold thumbs inward against each other. The index fingers make the steeple, thumbs the doors, and other fingers the people inside. When the thumbs separate they represent opening the church doors to look at the people inside.

steeple smallAt NEXT conferences in Indianapolis and Dallas I heard much talk of wanting what’s next for the church to include hospitality, people of all ages, and sustaining life instead of attempting to prevent death. I’m in favor of all those, and have learned about the impact of all three from sitting in the pews instead of standing the pulpit lately.

One of the realities I’ve come to appreciate about not currently receiving a paycheck from a church is that do not have to arrive early on Sundays. As part of my self-guided continuing education while seeking a call, I intentionally show up 5-10 minutes late to worship services at various churches.  I do this to experience how visitors and/or latecomers are treated. In some churches I’ve been pleasantly surprised and in others I’ve been offended when I did not receive a bulletin and nobody passed me any peace.  As clergy, I happen to know insider language and cues, but if I didn’t, I might feel awkward even in the friendliest congregations.

A few Sundays ago I arrived at my scheduled 11:06 to the church I most frequently attend. I walked up the steps with two women whom I did not know. We entered the narthex and were greeted by closed doors to the sanctuary. The women looked at me and said, “This is our first time here. Do you think it’s alright to open the doors or are we too late?” I jokingly made a comment about how people come to this service up until 11:45 and opened the doors for them. Once inside we were given bulletins, and I walked with them to an open pew so they wouldn’t feel alone walking down the long aisle.

The doors of the sanctuary were likely closed because it was a crisp, breezy, fall day and someone didn’t want the sanctuary to get drafty. For all practical purposes that makes perfect sense, too. But I can’t help but wonder if those two women would have turned away had someone more familiar with that congregation not been there when they arrived. Would they have opened the doors? Would they have tried again another Sunday? Who knows, but I do know that closed doors, even for good reasons, do not send the message that this is a gateway into life, hope, and hospitality.

As I settled in to my seat next to the two women, the childhood rhyme was on repeat in my head. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. The problem with that is not that the church is a building with a steeple, doors, and people. It’s that someone on the outside of the potentially intimidating sanctuary has to open the doors to see the people inside.

I’d like to receive a paycheck from a church again, and I live in a city with a serious winter season, so I’m not about to suggest we remove all doors from all church buildings. I say we rotate the hinges, leave the sanctuary doors open, and let the Spirit blow where it will. I realize that practically speaking it may mean leaving our light jackets on while seated in the pews, but I consider that a small price to pay for hospitality. Let’s just make sure we aren’t layered in Members Only jackets, as insider language is not welcoming, nor are we the church of the 1980’s.

While we’re at it, let’s tweak the rhymes we teach our children. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. The doors are wide open to welcome all people.”

Ashley-Anne Masters is a freelance writer and pediatric chaplain in Chicago, IL. She is the author of Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss During Advent and co-authored Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergywoman with Stacy Smith. She blogs at revaam.org

Looking for more? Here are other resources from NEXT:

Another Year, Another City

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Emily Powers

Over the past couple of weeks – really months – I have been thinking about why I decided to do a second year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV). I’ve been asked if it wasn’t required, then why do it? I have talked with other YAVs who have done or are currently doing a second year, and they understand my struggle. After doing one intense year of intentional community, discernment, and volunteering, I discovered a lot about myself. So I felt that tug. That tug that we often identify as a call to do another year in a drastically different city with different people. I went to New York City to try a different job and maybe find my calling along the way.

Then, three months ago, I got to New York. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t finding my second year harder than my first. Who would have guessed that I would long for the spacious city of Washington, DC, or that I would crave for the relative silence that surrounded our row house? Yet here I am. I am in New York, and it is not what I asked for. It is not the second year I thought would be guaranteed from working in an interesting placement, living with experienced YAVs, and living in a constantly moving city jungle.

yav nycSo I am faced with the very difficult task to step back and evaluate my part in my experience. It may seem like a “no kidding” moment. Of course you have the autonomy to take back your life and experience. When I talk with my parents, they tell me how proud they are that I’m doing this great thing. They tell me to keep going because the experience will be worth it. They tell this to me knowing that my entire life I’ve been stubborn and bull headed and that I’m going to do it my way either way. So I thank them for their support because they are right. I will make it.

I have known for a while now that when I am fed with the Holy Spirit, I am at my happiest. Yet I manage to forget this when life gets hard or stressful or busy. So I have decided to start trying to listen to my parents’ advice to pray about it and keep going (like they have shown me my entire life). I cannot expect that someone is going to sit down with the bible and read it for me, just like I cannot expect someone to do my dishes.

So to not spend my year simply saving myself from myself, I have decided to do what I already know how to do. I know how to pray. I know how to go to church and worship. I know how to sit with a work and learn something new. I know that being present and showing up is 90% of the game. I know that by doing these things I have given myself the tools to be fulfilled.

It will still be hard. It will not be the last time I feel frustrated or want to pack my bags to fly home. It would not be worth it if it were easy.

emily powers

Emily Powers is a second year Young Adult Volunteer. She completed her first year in Washington, DC, and is now in The Big Apple. She plans to continue her life in ministry and eventually find herself at seminary. She is basically a New Yorker, except that she likes the Royals and misses getting across town in under twenty minutes.

A Whisper of Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lori Raible

What is saving my ministry right now? Under the veneer of the rosy-cheeked, puffed-up, perfect show? Under the wide blanket of collective anxiety and fear? Just under the surface of baby-joy? Under the frenetic pace of life as we plead with the dusty donkey to pick it a bit?

The donkey seems so slow.

I would by lying if I said it is the innocence of my children’s faces. I would be faking it if I said it is the anticipation of joy, or the expression of community as we prepare to celebrate. It would be dishonest to say it is giving and receiving.

star ornamentsOf course the collective measure of such blessings express a truth that otherwise may not be evident. But right now, in this moment, it is a desperate hope that saves my ministry. A hope that the promise of the incarnation is not only true, but also conjoined to the promise of the cross: Already, and not yet.

I will not leave you, ever.

The promise itself is strong enough, but sometimes my hope feels flimsy.

If we make it to the manger, will we find Job there? What about poor Jeremiah sinking in the mud? King David in his grief over the death of his son? Hannah weeping in despair for a child she cannot conceive? Guilt-ridden Peter? Lost Judas? Doubting Thomas?

I wish Herod would change his mind. Can you imagine?

Already and not yet.

This year I have no words. Trust me, this is a miracle in and of itself. Call me Zacharias, but this is the type of yearning that is better sung than spoken.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a singing voice either. What sustains me is that other people do. That’s the thing about church. When I can’t gather the courage to ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ I hear choirs singing on my behalf.  Three year olds sing off-key: ‘clop, clop, clop, little grey donkey.’ Willa May Young, Ellen Harris, Joanne Cole, Ed Thomas, and Ed’s dad, Herman who is 88 at least, they make magic with Comfort, Comfort You my People.

I have no words to match the truth one hears between the notes. Between the words of those advent hymns, I hear a whisper of hope that is so deep and so profound that I am left speechless. Shamelessly I rely on a host of angels, to sing the words so I can listen for the promise of delivery in the face of what seems to be an unimaginable labor.

Still. Still. Still,

Wouldn’t that be something?

O Come. O Come Emmanuel,

My heart aches with that hope.

LRaibleLori 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. 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. 

Finding Hope in Conflict

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Andrew Plocher is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Andrew Plocher

Conflict is all around us. It seems even more present this Advent than in years past, and it fits well with the beauty of God’s light breaking into the world’s darkness. Conflict. Good versus evil, light versus dark, Advent hymns versus Christmas ones, fear versus love, spritz versus gingerbread cookies. Whether trivial or existential, there are conflicts all around us.

photo credit: love-candle via photopin (license)

photo credit: love-candle via photopin (license)

Learning to agree or disagree in love is not easy. Conflict has a bad rap in our culture and especially the church, where it brings up visions of parking lot conversations and membership in exodus. Yet conflict is not a bad thing. In fact, I believe it is regularly saving my ministry. I don’t know when I first learned to value conflict, but I think it parallels my learning to bake artisan breads. While conflict has the potential to be terribly destructive, it also has the potential to be generative. In baking bread, the leaven (e.g. yeast) is in conflict with the salt. If the leaven wins, the bread lacks texture and flavor. If the salt wins the bread fails to rise and is far too salty. The two have two work together to find a balance so that the perfect texture and flavor are met in the baking of the bread. Finding that balance is part science and part art. The same holds true to navigating the conflicts we face in our daily lives and our congregations.

As I face the seasonal conflicts in congregational life, I try to view them as generative. In every conflict there is the potential for creativity, for death and resurrection, for something new to arise. In the annual squabble over who will be baby Jesus there’s a chance to reframe a pageant, to explore how we value children in worship, and grow as a church family. In a conflict over politics, there’s an opportunity to explore how we communicate with one another, learn to listen, and navigate the intersection of personal values and public faith. None of that is easy, but every time I walk through conflict I do so knowing that there’s the potential for light and life. It doesn’t matter if I’m working with a congregation torn apart, an individual wrestling with how to lead through conflict, or navigating the challenges of my own family politics during the holiday season.

No matter what the conflict, there is hope. It’s in the beauty of Advent and the light coming into the world. It’s in the beauty of baking a perfect sourdough bread. It’s in the beauty of witnessing a community find healing or an individual find a path through a challenging time. It’s witnessing the wonder of agreeing and disagreeing in love. It sounds crazy, but conflict is saving my ministry, and I hope that it might, in some way, do the same for you.


Andrew PlocherAndrew’s workshop: Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love

Conflict has always been a part of religious communities. It is something every congregation, whether just beginning or centuries into its life, experiences. These disagreements can be forces for creation or destruction and navigating that balance is challenging. Come hear about strategies to disagree in love and to join in conversation about how conflict is changing and how we can, as a community of faith, creatively address it in our different contexts. Offered Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register now.

Andrew Plocher is the new pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Gwinn, Michigan, and a minister member of National Capital Presbytery. He has a decade of experience working with conflicted congregations and non-profit organizations. He is also working on finishing his D.Min. in pastoral counseling at Louisville Seminary.

Greatest Hit: Prayer by Text Message?

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on worship as pastoral care is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

text message

photo credit: IntelFreePress via photopin cc

There was hesitation before hitting the “send” key. Was I really about to become “that kind of pastor?” The kind of pastor who would send a prayer by text?

It’s not like I woke up one day and it happened. The move to that place was a slippery slope. It happened bit by bit.

In 1997 I was called to my first church. A little church in rural West Virginia. I could count on one hand those who had cell phones, and I wasn’t among them. The church didn’t even have a functioning answering machine or email address. Pastoral Care meant on-the-ground, in-the-home, sitting-in-the-hospital-room visit.

Seventeen years later, there I was, getting ready to text a prayer to a parishioner in the hospital.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

In 2014, it’s not so clear. I’ve had more than one person tell me that my invitation to meet with them in their home caused them concern—what had they done wrong?

Hospital stays aren’t the same, either. You can argue whether shorter hospital stays increase or decrease the efficacy of that stay, but you can’t argue that hospital stays are shorter than they used to be. And in my experience, they’re busier, too. I can’t remember the last time I visited someone in the hospital and just sat for an extended visit.

I also find that people are hungry for their pastoral care to have a longer spiritual half-life. How will something that is said in prayer, or a scripture that is read, be recalled when they are awake at 2:00 A.M. in the morning?

Visits are always accompanied with a piece of card stock, now. I have stacks of prayer cards and psalm cards that not only contain helpful/comforting/challenging words (I have enough that I can choose one that speaks to the situation in which I am visiting), they also include my name and the church’s information.  Good for that 2:00 A.M. blood pressure check that leaves them wondering (aka: not sleeping).

And while it was a huge advance in technology to buy my first church a modern answering machine and get them an email address, I hardly use voice messaging anymore. It’s mainly a way to make sure people have my cell phone number, so they can call, or text me, with updates or questions or concerns. Logistics, that’s what texts have mainly been about.

Or at least they were until I texted that prayer. A parishioner was in the hospital, being prepped for surgery. It was unlikely I would get there before he went in, and even if I did, he was already surrounded by family. Maybe too much family. There was enough commotion and busy-ness around him. What he needed was a connection to something bigger, deeper, and quieter that transcended the moment. I could have called, but would he have heard me? Would he have been able to talk?

I typed the prayer, heartfelt words for this beloved child of God, and after pausing for a moment’s hesitation, hit “send.”

He told me later that he read the prayer then, had his wife read it after surgery, and then read it again in the middle of the night, when he awoke, afraid.

The prayer wasn’t a work of art or genius, it was a doorway to the Holy Spirit that, once open, allowed for grace to arrive and then to arrive again.

Is texting the same as face-to-face visiting? No. But it does leave a trail. And sometimes it’s not only an acceptable choice, it’s the better, more faithful, choice.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

The 21st century is more fluid. It requires more energy to connect and more attention to discern what is a hunger and what is a desire. But if what is expected is to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” then the door is open. I feel a little bit (a lot) like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but hold fast to Romans 12:15 and the belief that it’s the water that matters, not the cup that serves it.


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

Looking for more? Here are more resources from NEXT:

Singular, Quiet Questioning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Gary Swaim

A painting by Gary Swaim

Crux by Gary Swaim

At age 81, I’ve been on a rich, extended pilgrimage. I’ve experienced the usual twists and turns of life, but there’s always been a single light and my focus. The light would occasionally flicker somewhat, and my attention would wane, but even when the light turned dimmer, or seemed to, it held me. My ministry (watching or looking for the light) moved from one rooted in a juvenile, outspoken certainty to one more internalized, quiet, and questioning.

My ministry reversed its locus from external to internal, changing almost everything about me.

In time I would learn that the external could not be authentic until it grew from an internal drive and understanding. And, for some twenty-five years or so now, I have lived (or tried to live) the singular spiritual life, with a reasonable quietness and a questioning spirit. I have long ago left the life of parroting others. I have tried to go deeply into the self to find truths and the light, then to come out into the public with my writing (poems, plays, fiction), painting, and university teaching. In these endeavors and with my deeply committed Christian community I can fulfill my mission.

GarySwaim_webGary Swaim is a ruling elder in Irving, TX. He is a professor in the Master of Liberal Studies program at Southern Methodist University of Dallas. He teaches playwriting, the writing of both poetry and fiction, creativity, and studies in diverse interdisciplinary courses. More recently, he has added digital painting to his efforts, professionally. To learn more about Gary’s work, visit his website.