Plowing the Ministry Road

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Nate Phillips is one of our presenters. Learn more about his workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Nate Phillips

Unlike the rest of us, Bill was thrilled to hear about the incoming Snowzilla blizzard that buried the Mid-Atlantic.

This was because Bill doesn’t manage snow with a plastic shovel or a finicky snowblower – his weapon of choice is a silver 3/4-ton truck and a snowplow, which, as you might imagine, makes Bill a very popular guy after a snowstorm.

snowy roadHe gets calls from neighbors and messages from Facebook friends begging him to sweep through with his plow.  When they can’t get through to him, they harass his wife and pile on the guilt.

During one of the heavier waves of the storm, Bill was out clearing a residential development when a man walked right out in front of him, risking his life to try to get Bill to stop 3/4’s of a ton of metal on wet snow.  Bill squinted his eyes, pumped the brakes, and rolled down his window.

The man was gruff with him, “I need you to plow my road!” he demanded, “I’ll pay you cash.”

When Bill told me that story, I laughed and said, “That’s not how it goes in my line of work.”

I remember when I started seminary thirteen years ago (time flies) and hearing about a “pastor shortage” in the PC(USA).  I felt confident about being able to find good work in a church, something that could last a lifetime.  That is still the case, for sure.  There are many places where a call is extended and accepted in a very traditional fashion.

However, it is not a stretch to say that there are fewer and fewer churches running out at pastors, stopping them in their tracks, desperate for pastoral services and ready to pay.

During our “Do Something Else” workshop at the NEXT National Gathering, we will discuss the current “job market” and set it alongside a consideration of call.  We will talk about actual needs in churches and actual dreams of pastors and discover that there is more possibility than might first meet the eye.

I will be joined by my colleagues John Molina-Moore and Edwin Estevez as facilitators in this workshop.  John and Edwin have joined me in the last few years in the work of cobbling and creating to work around the “one-church/one-pastor” paradigm and find ways for churches and pastors to be re-energized in plowing the ministry road together.

We look forward to sharing our stories and we hope you bring your story, your church’s staffing needs, and your sense of call for mutual reflection in our brief time together.

Nate PhillipsNate is co-pastor at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware.  He is the author of the upcoming book for churches and leaders, “Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church,” and a devout Red Sox fan. You can pre-order his book on Amazon.

Nate’s workshop, “Do Something Else,” is offered during workshop block 3 (on-site) on Tuesday.

Design and the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Jess Fisher is one of our presenters. Learn more about her workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Jess Fisher

Did you know there’s a connection between toilet paper and church websites?

A few weeks ago, I went into a grocery store to pick up some toilet paper. Now, this wasn’t my usual grocery store, where I tend to get the store brand items, so I had to choose what kind to get. My wishlist: cheap, soft, but not too thick. Well, I got to the aisle and froze.

Overwhelmed with information and choice, I stood paralyzed, looking at the multitude of options from super fluffy to super strong, not really trusting the bright bubble letter labels about what was inside the packages boasting the best wipe ever. I could not choose.

What was supposed to be a 30 second swipe of the shelf had become five minutes standing there like a deer in headlights…for toilet paper.

If it is this hard to choose something simple like toilet paper, how much harder is it to choose and commit to a church?

We live in an information-saturated world where the average person makes 35,000 decisions a day. One of the church’s roles is to guide and support people as they make daily decisions to live in the way of Jesus. As leaders, we are asking and hoping for people to make a commitment to invest themselves into our faith communities. We rely on online and print communications to do this work, but our communications are often illegible, unappealing, and outdated, all far worse than that of our favorite purveyor of paper goods.

What if we intentionally used our communications to help people find Sabbath rest from the information overload and decision fatigue of the modern world? Can we use communication and design theory to organize, simplify, and prioritize the information we send out?

Yes, we can!

I love graphic design because it solves a problem. Good design can change the way we interact with each other and with our neighbors. It provides a structure and process for looking at our context, organizing information, and presenting it in a simple, legible, and accessible way.

At my workshop at the NEXT Church National Gathering, “The Medium is the Message: Good Design for the Church,” we’ll explore:

  • the theory and theology of why design matters in the church,
  • how design thinking and processes can structure our communications,
  • tips and tricks for better design,
  • resources and tools to implement this at home, and
  • how to work with a designer.

I hope to see you there!

Jess FisherJess Fisher, a liturgical artist and graphic designer, brings the visual arts into the church, hoping to help others find new connections with the Holy One in and around them. Follow Jess at

Jess’ workshop is called “The Medium is the Message: Good Design for the Church” and is offered during workshop block 1 on Monday. 

Worship with God’s Living Word

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked members of our 2016 National Gathering planning team to share what especially excites them about this year’s conference, February 22-24 in Atlanta. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

A blazing bush breathes “I AM,” a billowing cloud signals the way, a valley of bones clatters to life, a thundering wind weaves all voices into one, and a barren grave whispers: “Mary, Mary–Do not fear.”  Over and over, our scriptures offer us glimpses of God meeting people in words and images, in visions and poetry, in dreams and revelations beyond our wildest imagining.

lisle workingAnd yet, when it comes to our worship, we are often bound to words on a page. We listen to scripture read and proclaimed, we recite unison prayers like a script, and we grip our bulletins like road maps telling us when to sit or stand. Thanks to a certain French Reformer, we’ve inherited a robust emphasis on the Word; we value the many ways scripture can instruct, inspire, edify, and ground us. But in our pursuit to centralize the Word in our worship, we sometimes become complacent, letting the Word lay flat on a page. Sometimes we forget that, before The Word was written, it was envisioned, and uttered, and breathed. To worship more fully and faithfully, I think we must embrace the promise that our scriptures are God’s living Word. To bring our full selves to God in worship, we must allow the scriptures to come to life.

lisle artSo, when it comes to what I’m most looking forward to at the NEXT National Gathering in February, I’m excited for worship. As the conference artist and a member of the worship planning team, I am energized by our plans to include a wide and artful variety of liturgical expression. Throughout the week’s worship services, we will invite the Spirit to speak through dance and drumbeat, spoken word and storytelling, live painting and art installations, movement and embodied prayer. We’ll set the Word loose, allowing it to shape and mold us in ways we might not expect. As we worship together, we hope everyone will be able to hear, see, and sense the stories God is so eager to tell. We look forward to seeing you in worship!

Lisle Gwynn Garrity HeadshotLisle Gwynn Garrity is a Pastorist (pastor + artist) of sorts, diving into ministry with a creative and entrepreneurial drive. A recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, she holds master’s degrees in divinity and practical theology, and loves bringing the Word to life through live painting, liturgical installations, and communal art banners.  See more of Lisle’s work at or on Facebook at A Sanctified Art.

Add your voice to our listening campaign

Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have 50 listening sessions with 500 Presbyterians by the end of January.

Read more

Youth Ministry Beyond the Bubble

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Amanda Pine and Teer Hardy are two of our presenters. Learn more about their workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Amanda Pine and Teer Hardy

One of the greatest gifts for youth leaders is social media; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest (who doesn’t love the awesome games you can find there), and Tumblr.  All of these social media sites are full of resources that will aid in connecting leaders for idea sharing and tips about what works and what does not. Recently, on a Facebook youth ministry group board, there has been an influx of youth leaders asking for advice on how to handle being laid off (forced resignation), having their hours cut or increased without an increase in pay, or needing to leave congregations because they just are not able to make ends meet. This represents a troubling tone which is reflected among all of Christian education. Securing volunteer leadership is increasingly hard and financial resources to support paid program staff are also becoming increasingly scarce.

great bridge umc youthWhere is the silver lining in this? What can we possibly take away from job insecurity and financial and volunteer scarcity? “Youth Ministry Beyond the Bubble,” the workshop that we will be presenting at the NEXT Church National Gathering, will address how we can escape from our fears about ministry, and take (responsible) risks to make a youth ministry program great. Part of this involves inspiring change in our church communities in general, but part is about branching out to your mission field and partnering with community organizations and business to advance the goals of the ENTIRE community.

Using missional theology, we believe that youth ministry does not have to be the first program cut in a time of budget crisis. We do not offer any quick-fix or attractional advice for youth workers, but rather a change in mindset that we hope will inspire youth leaders to embrace challenges in their congregations with positivity, and treat their youth with top priority. We are passionate about youth ministry and church growth, specifically when the church grows to more effectively nurture the community it finds itself in.

Teer Hardy

Teer Hardy is husband, father, and brewery theologian. He serves as the Director of Youth Ministry at Great Bridge UMC in Chesapeake, VA.



Amanda Markam PineAmanda Pine is a cradle Presbyterian who currently serves the congregation of Great Bridge UMC as Director of Christian Education.

Amanda and Teer’s workshop is called “Youth Ministry Beyond the Bubble” – 

Are you constantly plagued by the “numbers” question? How many people are attending your programs? How many are new this week? This workshop will provide participants with practical, tried and true, ways to incorporate an intentionally outreaching focus into your youth ministry setting. Together, we will move beyond the traditional models of ministry and begin the practice of risk taking as a faith community. This workshop is offered on Tuesday during workshop block 3.

An Opportunity to Re-Energize

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked members of our 2016 National Gathering planning team to share what especially excites them about this year’s conference, February 22-24 in Atlanta. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Meghan Gage-Finn

I struggled when the National Gathering planning team was asked to submit something to the blog in response to the question, “what is saving your ministry right now?” My honest response, which I didn’t think worthy of submittal, was that I am, at times, overly consumed in the minutia of ministry, and I feel caught up in the smaller details when I want to step back more regularly to see the big picture. My heart felt heavy walking with others who are caught in dark places of grief and ongoing treatment, depression, and isolation. I sensed that I was so focused on being immersed in my ministry that I couldn’t find perspective on what might be saving it. If I were truly honest with myself, I think I was worried about pursuing the question because, what if the answer was: nothing. What if nothing creative is happening in my ministry right now? What if I am following my sense of call with faith and conviction, but my ministry is not all that unique or life-changing?

Photo of the 2015 National Gathering by Chad Andrew Herring

Photo of the 2015 National Gathering by Chad Andrew Herring

Now the planning team has been asked to share what we are excited about as the National Gathering in Atlanta approaches, and I realized having NEXT on my calendar for mid-February is energizing for me, it is life-giving, and it will draw me out of my own small world of ministry and into the lives and stories of others. It gives me perspective and reminds me of the larger community of support to which I belong. I am looking forward to reconnecting with friends and building new relationships, and having challenging conversations about creating social change in our neighborhoods as leaders in the church. I am looking forward to being reminded, through worship and learning, that I am part of something bigger.

So, I wonder if someone else at NEXT will be worrying whether or not anything creative is happening in his ministry now, or if someone else is coming seeking guidance and hope and partners along the way. I wonder if a student or new pastor feels she is alone in wrestling with issues of reconciliation and justice as a person of faith. In case there are just a few others who feel questions creeping in they are avoiding answering, I’ll be there. I look forward to hearing your story, and sharing a bit of mine.

meghan gage finn

Meghan Gage-Finn serves as Executive Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, and as one of the co-chairs of the 2016 National Gathering. As an avid triathlete and marathon runner, this has proven valuable training for both ministry and chasing after three children, age 5 and under.

Holding the Tension

by Angela Williams

Even though I am no longer a college student, I had the great privilege of attending College Conference at Montreat earlier this month on behalf of NEXT in order to host two listening sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed this time of personal and professional renewal that I had experienced as a college student; however, I came to College Conference from a different place than I did previously. For the past four months, I have been thrust into the professional church world. I am so grateful to be a part of the NEXT Church network that is truly on the cutting edge of moving the new church awakening forward. Simultaneously, I am experiencing what it is to work for the church and not simply be an enthusiastic, active member for the first time on my journey.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Recently, NEXT Church director Jessica Tate and I discussed where NEXT fits in Diana Butler Bass’s Arc of Awakening. We came to the conclusion that NEXT is in the thin space at the base of the arc, where we are free to imagine and experiment. NEXT must work with those who find themselves on all points of the arc, whether they are grasping the loss of the old way or already marching forward with new visions in hand.

Personally, I feel as if I have a foot on each side of the arc. I get to imagine the future of the church with NEXT at the same time that I work with incredibly valuable ministries of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church that have been spreading God’s love for over fifty years. In each of these placements, I am working closely alongside other humans and all of their beautiful messiness, some of whom are mourning the church of their childhood, others who cannot wait for the church to catch up with their ideas.

So it was with this mindset that at College Conference, I heard amazing preaching on John 3:16 from NEXT Church strategy team member Carla Pratt Keyes, the story of a football player who left the NFL to follow his calling to become a farmer, creative accounts of witnessing from Nadia Bolz Weber, and tales of transformative mission from leaders across the country. Through the listening sessions, I heard invigorating narratives of presbyteries that energize local congregations to meet the need in their communities. I also listened as some expressed hurt that a denominational program with so much potential fizzled. If I learned anything from these sessions, it is that we are not alone in the struggle to follow the Spirit through times of tension. Any questions I have about my ministries have found a home in others’ hearts, too. That solidarity that we found in an hour of relational conversation energizes me to keep imagining, while holding the tension of the church that was, the church that is, and the church that is to come.


Angela WilliamsAngela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Reconciliation Lived Out

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Shannon Beck is one such presenter. Learn more about her workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Shannon Beck

When I was called to work for World Mission at the Presbyterian Church (USA), I took on the most amazing job title on the planet: Reconciliation Catalyst. Of course everyone, including me, was asking with a snicker, “How is she going to do that?” The funny part is that the job title was originally listed as “Violence and Reconciliation Catalyst.” Needless to say, I was not keen on being a violence catalyst, so we changed it. (I’m a stickler on details like that.)

presby peacemakersThe thing is, though, we live and work in a violent world. Much of what Presbyterian mission co-workers do in their context, is pastor, love, teach, and advocate in communities where wars, conflicts, corruption, and the violence of poverty persist, sometimes for decades. Israel and Palestine, Congo, Iraq, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the United States, just to name a few. And there are so many levels of violence we address. Hence, removing the word violence didn’t seem right. But ultimately we landed here on reconciliation. We work toward reconciliation. That is where we began as Christians, reconciled to God; that is the goal for God’s beloved world.

And to think: the 2016 National Gathering is an entire conference with reconciliation as the theme! I’m in!

Related to that is the fact that I have a particular interest in how we create change for the common good. On an essential level, I think of peace, justice, and reconciliation as the primary ingredients of social justice. This is the mission and witness we undertake as church. The church exists for mission. This much we know. How exactly we do that is dependent on many factors, especially our context. But, we find there are few venues for leaders to discuss this. How does change work? What ingredients do we need? What has worked for us?

Rev. Carl Horton, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and I work closely together and thought it would be an amazing experience to share together what has worked in a workshop. We have models of social change that can be instructive, but we know that our experiences will be our teachers.

What usually happens when the Spirit moves us toward deeper involvement? We are sooo excited that we…form a committee! Or we take off running, cape flying behind us.

Both ways can be helpful for a season, but often we do just one or the other. We either wander through the discernment vortex or we pull out our light sabers and head into battle. Either way, we can miss THE moment. You know the one – where God, the community, the world, our worshipping community come together and are the feet and face and presence of Christ in a way that moves humankind forward.

We make the road by walking it together. But it takes some creativity. And I believe a couple of things about creativity. One is that creativity is really just a tweak on something else. It’s not magic. Another thing is that when creative people come together, magic happens.

Shannon BeckShannon Beck serves as the Reconciliation Catalyst in World Mission for the PC(USA). She connects individuals, congregations, and other entities with each other and with PC(USA) global partners engaged in building peace and reconciliation in cultures of violence. She is currently focused on an international Presbyterian campaign to stop sexual violence. In her spare time she is a blogger, poet, peace activist and writes and performs “Heart-driven contemporary folk music”. She is co-leading a workshop entitled “Holy Impatience” at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Reflections on the Massacre at Mother Emanuel

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?” Perry Perkins 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 Perry Perkins

Editor’s Note: This was first published in the Democratic Faith Journal in June of 2015. We have edited it slightly to reflect the passage of time.

In the introduction to his book The Social Teachings of Black Churches, Peter Parris says that Black churches have at the center of their social teaching a Biblical Anthropology that is based on the Biblical narrative of the Creation. In the Genesis account we are told that all human beings are created in the likeness and image of God. Parris says that African American Churches teach that this means all human beings are equal and kin because we are all children of the one Creator.

Parris goes on to say that this anthropological theology defines how black churches approach the world. He says that white people historically were accepted as members and even Pastors of black congregations because they accepted this very basic tenant of the African American Church.


photo credit: nomader via wikipedia

On Wednesday evening [June 17, 2015,] a young man who authorities believe has white supremacist views, entered the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as mid-week Bible study was in progress. The young man asked to see the Pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, and Rev. Pinckney asked the young man to sit next to him during the Bible study lesson.

After the lesson ended, this young man began killing those who had gathered to study the Bible, those same people who had welcomed him into their historic church, as they have always welcomed and embraced visitors from around the world. He experienced the practice of the Biblical Anthropology that has been at the center of Emanuel since it broke off from the predominantly white Charleston Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 and was officially co-founded by Morris Brown in 1818.

Emanuel AME, the oldest African American Episcopal Church in the south, has stood throughout its history as a beacon of hope, teaching the Biblical Anthropology in opposition to the dominant social anthropology of the country, white supremacy. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, Mother Emanuel’s other co-founder, along with other members of Emanuel, plotted what would have been the largest slave rebellion in the country. Vesey and five other members of Emanuel were executed when the plot was discovered. Shortly after the rebellion was foiled, Emanuel was burned to the ground. The white establishment of Charleston and the state of South Carolina were so frightened by the plot that they built a fortress, the Citadel, which aimed its guns toward the houses of the Emanuel members.

Despite the loss of the church building Emanuel continued to thrive and was often the beginning station of the Underground Railroad. For many years it was forced to function underground, but despite these obstacles Emanuel stood as a symbol against white supremacy. Emanuel continued to proclaim that all of God’s children are kin. Emanuel’s very perseverance as a congregation stood as a vibrant testimony against the false ideology of white supremacy.

The gunman who entered Emanuel on [that] Wednesday night experienced the welcoming of the stranger as an unknown brother. Despite this, the hatred and rage within him, spawned by the ideology of white supremacy, led him to take the life of the Pastor and eight other congregation members who had welcomed him. This despicable act cannot simply be passed off as the act of a lone deranged man, but must be seen as a product of the original sin of this country, the ideology and even theology of white supremacy. We have come a long way around race in this country; however, until we fully deal with the demons unleashed by the false doctrine of white supremacy we will continue to see events like the massacre at Mother Emanuel.

Many ask how do we deal with exorcising the demons of white supremacy? There is no easy answer or formula. However, for the last almost 31 years I have been a part of a guild of organizers called the Industrial Areas Foundation. IAF, founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940, is the nation’s oldest and largest network of organizers. IAF partners with local institutional leaders to build local non-partisan political organizations aimed at crossing the divisions of community life to build vehicles of civic engagement that we call Broad Based Organizations. The major division or road block to constructive civic engagement is the construct of race that grows from the false doctrine of white supremacy.

Organizations like Working Together Jackson, a coalition of some 43 institutions in Jackson, Mississippi, are deliberately organized across racial lines. Working Together Jackson was publicly founded in June of 2012, after three years of Sponsoring Committee work, carefully building relationships across racial, religious, political, and economic divisions. These years of groundwork have helped to achieve a measure of public trust that crosses racial barriers and testifies to the Biblical notion of kinship of all creation.

Acting together through this new found trust that flies in the face of the white supremacist history of Jackson, the leaders of WTJ have created the first Housing Trust Fund in Mississippi, as a financial instrument to combat the blight that plagues most of Jackson’s predominantly black neighborhoods. The leaders crossed race to secure 6,600 signatures in one month on a constitutional amendment proposal to fully fund public education in the state. In one week they secured 3,000 yes votes on a ballot initiative to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of Jackson and to invest $1.2 billion over 20 years in rebuilding Jackson. WTJ is also crossing racial lines to partner with the city of Jackson to recruit and train underemployed and unemployed local residents to fill the living wage jobs produced by this infrastructure reinvestment program.

This evidence of our work is not enough to prevent other tragedies like the one that occurred in Charleston on Wednesday, but the slow and systemic work of building public relationships that teach in word and deed the Biblical Anthropology proclaimed by Mother Emanuel is part of the solution to exorcising the demons of America’s original sin.


perryPerry C. Perkins, Jr. has organized for 37 years and has been affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nation’s oldest network of organizers. He is the IAF Supervisory Organizer for Louisiana and Mississippi. He, along with organizer Kathleen O’Toole, are leading a workshop at the 2016 National Gathering entitled “Forging Public Relationships after Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Charleston.” The workshop will explore the essential discipline of the “relational action” fundamental to authentic conversations and action that move us forward toward God’s beloved community, especially as “America’s original sin” continues to breed mistrust in our public life and discourse.

“Just Listening” for Deeper Discernment

by Andrew Foster Connors

The worst part of hosting a listening session on church mission was the work it took to get ten leaders together in the same room for an hour. That was my immediate task last December as one of the 50+ trained facilitators for NEXT’s church-wide listening campaign. It proved harder than I first imagined. Talented leaders understand the value of their time and therefore resist putting themselves in situations where it will be wasted. So it’s hard to convince leaders used to “getting things done” that their time will not be wasted in a house meeting where the primary objective is listening.

I explained to each participant that many of us in NEXT, trained in the tools of community organizing, had learned the power of this relational tool. Unlike a survey, this kind of listening should lead to the deepening of public relationships. Unlike a complaint session, this kind of listening often led to deeper discernment. Unlike a debate, this kind of listening was designed for mutual learning that always happens when stories and experiences are shared with purpose and direction.

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

photo credit: ky_olsen via photopin cc

NEXT decided to launch a listening campaign in light of the changes occurring in leadership at the Presbyterian Mission Agency (with the departure of Executive Director Linda Valentine) and the Office of General Assembly (with the coming departure of Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons). Transitions are always crossroads moments for the church. Our conviction is that any agenda we might have for direction for the future resides within the leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as it’s lived out in congregations. Only by listening broadly could we hope to have anything helpful to contribute toward the church’s discernment.

In the first house meeting I hosted, the energy in the room was palpable. Mission that is rooted in relationships was a common theme that both inspired congregations and fed back into their vitality. “It’s hard for people not to swing a hammer,” one leader observed, but then went on to share a story of the transformation that happened to them when they found a different way to encounter the Spirit. The trust in the room quickly led to a safe space for opening wondering. “More and more young people are participating in our missional engagement work,” one leader said, “but not as often for our worship. I’m wondering if the next church is going to look more like a community of people engaged in mission who worship here and there rather than a group of worshipers who engage in mission from time to time. And, is that a good thing?” Others wondered about strengthening the capacity of their people to share the good news of Christ in and through their missional engagement.

There was healthy criticism but no blaming. For example, several mentioned how important the PC(USA)’s “New Beginnings” process had been for their congregations, but named an important gap: “New Beginnings got us to a place where we announced to the world with joy, ‘Yes! We are called to live!’ And then we had to go and figure out on our own what to do next.”  thers chimed in and acknowledged how they, too, had wished for guidance at that point in the congregational discernment process. These same leaders also recognized that “another national program isn’t necessarily the fix.”

In other words, what was happening in our listening session was that leaders were encountering each others’ wisdom, experiences, struggles, and dreams, and were feeding off each other. They were engaging some of the challenges that our denomination faces on a congregational level with strategic thinking, imagination, and intelligence. In the process, I gathered more than just “data” to be fed back to someone in Louisville. Relationships of leadership were deepening, ideas were coming out of the isolation of individuals and into community where they could be played with, improved upon, and shared.

It’s precisely this kind of discernment tool that NEXT is hoping to offer to our church. It fits nicely with our view that the if the church is first and foremost a community of relationships rooted in Christ, then the nurturing of those relationships needs to be at the center of our work. When we first announced this listening campaign, many people had a hard time believing there wasn’t more to the campaign than “just listening.” Even the statement “just listening” makes listening sound as though it has little value or worth.

I don’t know yet whether the common themes expressed among the ten folks who gathered in the group I led are shared beyond the region where I live. But I know that the time we spend listening together in a strategic, directed way is never wasted. It’s relationships like these that give rise not only to the ideas for change, but also the power to make it so. I look forward to coming together at the NEXT Church National Gathering with others who have been listening so that together we can share what we’ve learned.

Build_GOTV_14.2Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and the co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.