The Art of Holy Listening

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Helen Blier

“Where are you from?”

Simple question, right? Not for me. My dad was career military, so the scenery changed for us every year or two until I was nearly in middle school.

Every time we landed in a new place, the family would pile into the Chevy Caprice and we’d orient ourselves. Mom and Dad would find the commissary, the schools, the playground, the base chapel. Tucked in the front seat between my parents, I learned early how to read a map.

The more pressing question became, “Where are you at?”

holy listeningThe world around me was constantly in transition. Surviving new schools, neighborhoods, and faith communities meant learning how to navigate the new culture. It meant figuring out how to bring who I was to what was already there. As a friend put it, I had to become “productively nosy in other people’s business” – paying attention to where I and the people around me were “at.”

I learned quickly that people swim in their surrounding culture as fish swim in water – often with a similar lack of awareness. As the new person, it was all pretty obvious to me. Sometimes it was hard to dip a toe in, especially when some of it just seemed so dumb. Why couldn’t these people just change?

Writer David Foster Wallace observed, “The most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” But telling people to change what they couldn’t necessarily see was not just tone-deaf – it was doomed.

Part of the “productively nosiness” I exercised was the art of holy listening.  Learning how to listen to a context and its people – whether a neighborhood, congregation, or nonprofit – is one of the most crucial practices a ministry professional can engage. This is especially true in times of great transition, when the default and the familiar look awfully comforting.

What does holy listening look like? It means being present – really present – to the other and their reality. When I was a new high school teacher, barely older than my students, a sage mentor reminded me that sometimes, perception is reality. It shapes how people see the world around them and scripts how they respond to it. Being present helps tune our antennae to the world as others understand and react to it, not as we think it should be.

This isn’t just good interpersonal advice – it’s a deeply theological stance. It means taking the incarnation seriously and ministering accordingly. One of my wisest colleagues only ever asked two questions; “Where is God already at work in the world? And how can we be a part of it?” We don’t bring God anywhere; God is already there.

Being present is a practice that allows us to get past the white noise of our own expectations and distractions. It allows us to recognize the God of revelation who prefers showing up in surprising packages – whispers, babies, perhaps even that super annoying congregant who never likes your homilies. It helps us remember that the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.

Holy listening requires a “hermeneutic of curiosity.” Curiosity is productive nosiness that means willingness to learn about ourselves and others in a way that might change our own default settings.

I recently spoke with a pastor lamenting the slow death of his tiny rural congregation. Worship attracted just 30 people on a Sunday. But every Wednesday, a hundred hungry elders lined up for the senior luncheon two hours before the doors opened!

Where was church really happening in that community?

Holy listening makes for good pastoral care, too. When my daughter was teeny, she hated talking to me while I multitasked. She would put a firm hand on each of my cheeks and turn my face towards hers. Nothing less would do. The Chinese character for listening includes the roots for eyes, ears, heart, you, and undivided attention…. Not unlike the presence of a God who chose full involvement in humanity.

Holy listening is crucial for discernment. One hundred percent of us have been called to participate in God’s vision for the flourishing of all creation. Holy listening helps us recognize where that work is happening and how to be a part of it (or at least how to get out of the way!). It also helps us see others as partners in this good work, not as things to manage or problems to solve.

Holy listening is hard. It’s even harder when transition and change crank up the anxiety to eleven. But it’s absolutely necessary, especially if we minister in the name of the Word made flesh. And it’s the only way to answer the question of where we are at – and where we are called to be.

12Helen Blier is the Director of Continuing Education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She considers herself a “roaming Catholic” with a long standing commitment to ecumenism and a deep heart for the Presbyterians among whom she finds herself. For fun, she loves theological debates, good food, dogs, and the chance to watch things growing in her garden.

The Art of Pastoring a Post-Split Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cathi King

It’s a process… this coming back to life thing. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen without hiccups and bumps and frustrations. It most certainly doesn’t happen without the breath of God – for that’s how life started in the first place.

On May 15, 2012, First Presbyterian Tecumseh Michigan was declared in schism. Friendships severed. Families chose sides. Businesses lost long-standing customers. The whole town suffered. One of our parishioners described it as the most painful thing he’s ever experienced – harder than his cancer diagnosis and the death of a family member. It shredded his heart.

I became pastor to this church in December 2013. I followed a short-term interim but wounds were still fresh. I’ve listened to lots of stories.

At the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering, I co-facilitated a round-table for pastors of post-split churches and it was amazing how similar our experiences were: tremendous joys… complicated dynamics. It’s like pastoring a new church development with a building and a history: flexible, exciting, fresh yet at times triggered and taunted by a past it can’t quite shake. Because no matter how much we want to move on, and we are moving on, our past shapes us.

Our past shapes our mission. Many who lived through the split talk of feeling judged, marginalized and exiled from the church they once knew and loved. They know the pain of the voiceless and isolated and they are relentless in their determination to be gracious, hospitable and healing. This passion has led the church into two particular areas of ministry.

Invisible City: a 3-day annual local intergenerational mission event to come alongside our neighbors in need.

Bent al-Reef Women’s Empowerment Center: Through an Israel Palestine Mission Network grant from the PCUSA, we funded a cookbook story sharing project, giving voice to the women of a small village in the West Bank.  

Our past informs how we live together into the future. A former culture of secrecy, inner and outer circles, and compromised trust lead us to be intentional in our communication. We create safe spaces for anything to be discussed. We incorporate listening sessions to invite every voice. Using our own current case studies, we explore how to practice love, forgiveness and honesty more fully.

Our past influences our liturgical practices. Committed to reconciliation, our passing of the peace is warm, energetic and contagious. People leap from their seats to move across the room, embracing, introducing and ever-widening the circle of grace. Our services are highly participatory, giving people of all ages and abilities opportunities to engage.

Our past makes way for new life. An increasing number of new members did not live through or do not know about the split. This may be one of the greatest challenges. During a time of schism, people dig in and pick up the rope wherever they can. Moving from surviving to thriving requires accommodation of new gifts and ideas and a willingness to welcome new people to the team.

Can these bones live?  I asked in my Pentecost sermon of 2015. I told the story of Ezekiel 37 using photos of our church.

The valley of dry bones showed pictures of old multi-media equipment no longer used, children’s chairs stacked in an empty classroom, stairs to a locked youth room.

dry bones1 dry bones2 dry bones3



As the story unfolded and bone attached to bone, I showed photos of rooms and spaces being repurposed. Gathering spaces becoming small chapels and prayer circles, a new outdoor worship tent, a former media closet now a worship loft for children.

dry bones4 dry bones5 dry bones6

I closed the sermon by asking everyone:

As a church we are_______

As a church we are becoming________

We collected their answers during a hymn and session took turns reading each one aloud from the front of the church:

We are family… we are committed… we are growing… we are caring… we are united…

We are becoming more faithful… more inclusive… more diverse… more open… more loving…

Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know. By the power of the Spirit… the breath of God… let it be.

11Cathi King is a native Michigander. After 11 years in corporate management, Cathi pursued a Master of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary. Ordained in 2005, Cathi served as Associate Pastor at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor for 8 years before going to Tecumseh in 2013.  She and her husband Andy live with their two children Alex and Courtney, their golden retriever Zeus, farm cats Jax and Brady, chickens, guineas and bees in Tipton, Michigan.

Our Public Witness: Creating Bi-vocational Churches

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Scibienski

A Hindu dance school who had been using our building (and providing $14K in donation to the church) had outgrown our space and was not returning. Yikes – how are we going to make up $14K? That’s the first question we asked but it wasn’t the question we chose to answer.

Instead, we asked, “What if God is wanting us to use the resource of our building for more than rental money? What if God envisions another vocation for us?” We know our first vocation – to be a group of disciples who form a worshiping body of people in our context. And we were doing well at that vocation but what if God had more for us, something different, something that would transform who we are. The truth was if we were to ask anyone in our community what they knew about our church, we heard answers like, “Oh, that’s the church that’s odd shaped, right?” Or, “that’s the church with the preschool.” Those two statements were the public witness of our congregation. That didn’t seem like enough of a public witness for us and so we began to dream about how God would expand, grow, transform us through this transitional opportunity.

The first question, “how will we recover $14K?” is an easy place to stop. And there are plenty of churches working that problem, piecing together income to keep a church afloat financially. But being a landlord is not the same thing as using our resources for witness. We needed to change the first question and it wasn’t going to change unless someone was willing to change the conversation. Conversations don’t just change. People change conversations; leaders who are looking to create transformation change conversations.

Of course as Presbyterians, when we attempt to change the conversation, we sentence that new conversation to a committee where it will lose its energy to thrive or it will be picked apart until there is nothing left of the new idea. But for those in transitional ministry, we assume transitional opportunities can lead to transformation. Transitional leaders change the conversation. Transitional leaders build coalitions. Transitional leaders listen between the lines and tease out the direction the Spirit is leading. Transitional leaders realize the Holy Spirit loves transition  – transition of a pastor, the transition of a church board, the transition of a rental arrangement – because it’s in the transition that systems and people are open to transformation.

When we were faced with the transition of a renter, we transformed our public witness. We created another vocation for our congregation. In the early stages, we created this presentation called “Church with Many Doors.”

The vision for a “Church with Many Doors” created the Sand Hills Community Wellness Center whose mission is to provide programs and services that enhance the growth of mind, body and spirit. In addition to our first vocation of being a worshiping community of disciples, we are growing a second vocation (actually a third with our preschool that cares for 80 families in our community)… Yoga classes, mental health counseling, support groups, writing classes, garden to table programs, nutritional counseling and meals cooked in community. The services and programs at our Wellness Center have expanded our public witness and this new public witness is transforming who we are and what we are becoming as a church.

6Beth Scibienski is a teaching elder in the PCUSA, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (the merged congregation of Community Presbyterian and Miller Memorial Presbyterian). She blogs at and recently, she and her siblings have been teaching themselves to beat box. 

The Art of Making Small Changes

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Libby Rollins

Small changes can lead to new possibilities. Think about a child learning how to take those first few steps. Standing on wobbling legs trying to balance and lift one foot to plop it awkwardly down a few inches ahead. It takes some children many tries until they finally figure it out. But eventually, those initial shaky steps turn into sure-footed forward motion, which leads to walking and then running. The child, no longer limited to what is in an arm’s reach, has now opened up the possibility of a much larger world to explore.

baby feetI find this is a great metaphor for leading change in the church. As an intentional interim pastor, in each new congregation, I look for ways to introduce small changes.  I do this for two reasons –

  1. I have limited time with a congregation; and
  2. in the midst of a pastoral change, small changes are all some people will agree to, since they feel they are already in the midst of great, sweeping change.

My reality is this: I never have enough time with a congregation. Just as we begin counting “firsts” – first day in the office, first Easter, first funeral, first stewardship season; it seems in almost the same breath we begin counting down to the “lasts” – last Session meeting, last communion, last day in the pulpit. Eighteen-ish months flies by much too fast, as the calendar flips weeks and seasons at a hurried pace.  Huge, sweeping change takes a long time. It takes time to dream it, get it approved, manage the emotions around it, and enact it. I don’t have the gift of enough time to work towards big changes. I don’t have the time to build the leadership equity I would need to spend to enact big change. But I hope that in planting the seeds of success with small changes, energy and confidence will build momentum and lead to a willingness to embrace larger changes. Small things lead to bigger things, which leads to new possibilities.

I also find that people tend to have a “quota” on the amount of change they are willing to endure. During a time of a pastoral transition, when the face in the office and pulpit is changing, temporary, and yet unknown, it can feel like EVERYTHING about the church is in transition. While I don’t believe that to be true, I’ve heard it from multiple voices in all types of churches. So big change in the midst of what feels like big change, for some, is just too much at once. But small change sometimes is still welcome and tolerable.

So what does small change in the church look like? It’s different for each congregation. In one church it was moving the communion table forward so that it was visible to the worshippers, which changed the way the sanctuary looked, but it also changed the way they experienced the sacrament. In another church it was a new way of doing stewardship and budgeting and reporting, allowing for a new understanding of blessings and thankfulness, and a better understanding of how they used their resources. In one church it was a change in the focus of a staff position, allowing for new possibilities and a new structure. In another church it was as simple as moving some old furniture, buying a coat of paint and a community coffee pot, and creating a space to fellowship and share information. I found that success in navigating each of these changes led to excitement to try other new things and an increased willingness to engage in bigger change.

Once we succeed, we believe we will succeed again. When I finally get around to cleaning off my desk, it looks all neat and tidy. Then I go home feeling the rush of accomplishment and the excitement of organization and want to tackle the junk drawer in the kitchen. Next it’s organizing the laundry room or the coat closet. The tasks get bigger and bigger, require a larger time commitment, and have greater impact, but that first success breeds energy and helps to open my eyes to the greater possibilities.

As leaders in the church, clergy or lay, installed or interim, I believe we should all be planting seeds of small change until they blossom into possibilities for greater change, leading us down a path of massive change. For even small changes can lead us to exciting new possibilities.

1Libby Rollins currently lives in Virginia Beach, VA, and has been serving as interim pastor for 15 years in 7 different congregations. Her husband serves as an installed pastor, so she doesn’t move between churches. In addition, she has taught Transitional Ministry Education. When not at church, you can find her cheering for her son on a baseball field, in the kitchen trying out a new recipe, or sticking her toes in the sand at the beach.

Becoming the Curriculum

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jan Nolting Carter and Paul Rhebergen

Picture two people coming together in a conversation. We have met before, even related as teacher and student in the past, but only enough to appreciate each other in that setting — only now we have been brought together by a third person to work together in teaching a class. From that evolves a growing conversation, no, an improvisation if you will, that has led to new ways for us to understand and teach what it is we do.

It occurs to us that an emerging relationship between individuals mirrors developing a relationship with a congregation in transition. For us, reflecting on how relationships evolve is informing the development of new curriculum for transitional ministry.

We are two intentional transitional pastors who have served in a variety of congregations, in a variety of communities. Paul offers twelve transitional ministry experiences and years of Transitional Ministry Education Consortium (TMEC) teaching experience. He brings stories and history to the conversation. Jan brings a Masters in Education, high school teaching experience and six transitional ministry experiences. Together, we embody different generations of theological education, different Myers-Briggs types and multiple intelligences. The diversity that we bring to our conversation inherently helps us to think differently about teaching transitional ministry. We are transitional pastors because we have recognized our calling to consciously work with the elements of change that are impacting the congregations we serve. We have come to understand that we are called to particular congregations, at a particular time, to serve with them as they move into the future that Christ holds for them. This may mean working as an interim pastor, assisting a congregation in discerning the talents, skills and abilities needed in the next pastor that will serve it. More and more it means working with congregations that are realizing that what was, is past and gone, and that is scary. It means engaging a congregation in the multi faceted conversation that listens to those who are tied to that past, while listening with those who call the church into the future.

Out of a shared first experience of teaching The Art of Transitional Ministry Week 1 at Pittsburgh Seminary was the initial comfort of falling back on what we knew and what we had already experienced in our own history. We tried to figure out the roles we were supposed to fill, and worked to make sure we covered the basics of the traditional curriculum for interim ministry. As we talked with one another and the participants, however, we began to question whether the traditional approach is enough.

Dialogue led to exploration of new understandings, new images, and new metaphors for the ministry we share. We believe that interim ministry is not a holding pattern. We hold a conviction that transitional pastors are called to assist congregations in recognizing the intersection of the past and necessity of change to move into the future, working to remove blocks that hinder moving into future that is not our own, but the future that God prepares for us.

Our current focus is developing Week 2 of The Art of Transitional Ministry. The core of Week 2 is writing an LLC, a case study of an issue relating to one’s transitional ministry. Much of the conversation has been and will continue to be around using systems theory to analyze a congregation and help it to move from where it is to where God is calling it to be. We have wondered together, however about integrating elements into the curriculum that help participants to think with different lenses.

jan zootopia transitionWe have discovered, along with our friend and site coordinator, Helen Blier, that we hope to create an evolving curriculum for transitional ministry that serves as a bridge from the “way church has always been” to “the way church is being called to be.” We have tried to think about new and whimsical ways to consider the more traditional curriculum elements of transitional process tasks and developmental focus points. To help participants develop and hone their ability to think outside the box, we have identified nontraditional materials as our preparation. Students will watch Pixar’s Zootopia to think about entering a system and working through the tasks of identity, history, mission and creating a new identity. Our group will also read Wonder, a fictional tale about a boy entering a new school, to engage in conversation about one’s own identity in a system and how relationships can develop over time. Our conversations will be undergirded by reading Acts, the scriptural account of ministry in constant transition. Students will also be invited to think about developing their own metaphor for transitional ministry that we believe has the possibility to strengthen their understandings of the elements we teach, as well as support them in the movement of the work we do. We hope our design will invite creative conversations about context, holy listening, and working intentionally to invite congregations to think about and move through intentional change.

Like working with a congregation, our conversation reflects both an on-going dialogue and an evolution of thinking. It has led to thinking about transition in new ways and has opened our imaginations to new approaches to teaching and training for the ministry of change that we are share.

jancarter paul transitionalPaul Rhebergen serves Ewing Presbyterian Church in Ewing, NJ as its transitional pastor. Jan Nolting Carter serves St. James Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA at its interim pastor. Together, they form the teaching team at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the Art of Transitional Ministry, Week 2, and are trying to imagine a curriculum that reflects the on-going changes we all are experiencing in church and society.

Wanted: Workshop Proposals for the 2017 National Gathering

2017_NEXT Church Web Banner

Plans for the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering are well underway! Just last week, we announced our theme: Wells & Walls: Well-Being in a Thirsty World. Our guiding scripture is John 4:1-42 – the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. You can learn more about our thought process around this theme and scripture on our main 2017 National Gathering page.

As of this week, we’re ready to receive your ideas for what the Gathering should include. The planning team is seeking workshops that are engaging and thoughtful, sparking new ideas and approaches to ministry. These workshops can be held on-site or off-site in Kansas City. Please consider the Gathering theme and scripture when proposing workshop topics. Workshop blocks are 75 minutes long.

Do you have a workshop you would like to offer at this year’s NEXT Gathering? Please fill out this online form by Wednesday, August 31 to submit a proposal.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Change, Presbyterian Style

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Wagner

How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? It takes a council, in stated meeting, to determine if a new light bulb is in the ministry plan of the council, if there is funding for a new light bulb, and if persons can be called who will faithfully carry out this mission.

So change doesn’t come easy to Presbyterians; we are layered-in-steps type of folk, and to be honest, we aren’t really excited about change. Yet in this new milieu, change seems to be the buzz word. Our world is changing right before our eyes.

So we need to figure out this change thing. As a transitional pastor, I experience change every two years or so; I change locations, often times my home and what I know as normal. And I am serving churches that are experiencing change, whether the wanted it or not. I feel like I live and breathe CHANGE.

kotter changeI have repeatedly turned to Dr. John Kotter, former Harvard Business professor, author of 18 books, considered the authority on leadership and change, to help me.  Kotter has studied and written about change for 30 years. While John writes for the business world, I have found his process to work in the church world as well. His book Leading Change has been widely recognized as seminal work in the field of change management. It introduced the 8 step process to lead organizational change.

Kotter’s work in change has continued as he observed that no matter how you look at it, the rate at which our world is changing is increasing but our ability to keep up with it is not. Kotter talks to the business world about what remains the same and why change is necessary. I think we can translate that to the church world and when Kotter talks about specific changes to our organizations, I see this in most churches I serve:

  • We are falling behind the competition today
  • We are ill-prepared to think about the church of the future
  • We are too slow in executing change
  • We are too slow in innovate
  • We are too siloed to collaborate

Our leaders are disengaged from their roles and colleagues; there is a false urgency about the “dying church.” And we believe what got us here will get us to the future.

In 2011, I was able to help First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, IL make the decision to sell their 105-year-old building and merge with the neighboring congregation, 2nd Congregational Church. We used the Kotter 8 step process of change for the framework of enabling this 176-year-old congregation effectively change who they were and where they were physically located. Kotter says the 8 step process is perfect way to respond to or affect episodic change in infinite and sequential ways. It drives change with a small, powerful core group, it functions within a traditional hierarchy and focuses on doing one thing very well in a linear fashion over time.

The First Presbyterian session identified their guiding coalition, which they called the Penguin Group after Kotter’s parable “Our Iceberg is Melting.” In the fall of  2011, after months of  studying Kotter, the session recommend to the congregation that the only option was for them to sell the building. They had about 3 years of money left; the sense of urgency was present and real. The congregation agreed without knowing what would happen next. They created a slogan call “Close, Move or Merge.” They quickly threw out close; they were still a vital worshipping community in the neighbor. The guiding team created the first short term win after a congregational survey said everyone wanted to stay together. The guiding team then helped the congregation create scouting teams to visit neighboring congregations (both Presbyterian and UCC) to check them out and find out if one congregation was a better fit than others. By June of 2012, the congregation knew it wanted to merge with 2nd Congregational (located adjacent  to the First Presbyterian building). As meetings between the two churches began in earnest, and 2nd formed their own coalition, the excitement began to grow for both congregations. By-laws were created, furniture was moved, new offices made and decorated. It was an exciting process to be part of. On December 31, 2012, First Presbyterian Church closed it doors, sold the building and moved down the street to a new church: 2nd Congregational/First Presbyterian Church. CHANGE occurred.

beth-wagnerBeth Wagner is a transitional pastor who has served churches in the PC(USA) and UCC. She is presently serving First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, IL. This is her sixth transitional position and she is a faculty member at the MALT site of the Transitional Ministry Education Network (TMEC).  She is passionate about church and about change. If we are not changing, we are dying!

Thinking Creatively About Living in Transition

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robin Currás

When I was a young mother, I spent a good part of one summer’s vacation lakeside, in Vermont, blissfully writing “my novel.” When I write, I lose track of time, forget to eat, and emerge from this euphoria only with the sound of human alarm: “What’s for dinner?” or “Where are the kids? Alive, I hope.” On that particular vacation, my husband, tired of being ignored, finally tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hello?! We’re here to spend time together as a family.” He was right, and I made the decision to focus on my family. The problem is that when I returned home, I could not figure out how to be a full-time pastor, mother, and wife, and still carve out time to write. Preaching, crafting worship, and writing children’s plays sustained me.

lake-transitionalOn July 31, 2015, I stepped down from a seventeen-year call. My it-took-me-a-while-to-figure-out-and-accept next call was/is to be more present to my family and more specifically to my two teenagers who have to navigate the choppy waters of modern adolescence. For the first time in my adult life, I am not receiving a paycheck. Cue: identity crisis. But with crisis comes opportunity. I have a room of my own to write (Think Virginia Woolf.) and to ask the questions—Who am I? What do I love to do? What do I want to be when I grow up?—and to pray, “Lord, I’m listening,” all at the same time. I am being present to myself with the Holy Spirit as my constant companion.

Two books have found their way to my nightstand: one is Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward about the second half of life and becoming who you truly are, and the other is about leading change by C. Otto Scharmer entitled Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. Scharmer invites us to dive deeply into ourselves and be present with the source of our creativity in order to envision our future. It’s a different approach than other change theories (Think Heifetz–adaptive, Cooperrider–appreciative, Kegan—competing values, or Bridges—transition). Here, we have “presencing.”

I am thrilled and consider myself blessed to have this time and space to explore, listen, create, experiment, wonder, dream, and ask, “Who or what is the fullest expression of who God created me to be?” Scharmer recommends morning meditations or, in my language, dwelling in the Spirit. Another spiritual practice that I find helpful is Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” from The Artist’s Way. She recommends writing three pages in the morning to start the day “to help you retrieve your creativity.” (Google it.) I find my three pages are often a conversation with God—some days are more profound or likewise mundane than others. (“Lord, I need to go grow grocery shopping sometime. We are out of milk. But I also want to work on my play, and exercise, and then there’s the basement. And what about dismantling racism?” I know my mind is not the only one that works this way.)

My prayer for my former church is that they are asking themselves similar identity questions. Who are they? Who are they without me? And, who, what, where are they called to be? I hope they are taking advantage of this time-between to ask the deeper questions and to wonder what is the fullest expression of who they were created to be as a church? It can be, and I hope it is, a creative time, a blessed time of communion with God to ask essential questions and discern together what is the Spirit’s will for their life together. And I hope they don’t rush it, which may be key. You know, the push to get to the next installed pastor without taking the time to seriously consider where God is leading. And then there’s the transitional pastors who get itchy after a certain period of time. And there’s me who wants absolutely clarity yesterday.

In times of transition, we have, both personally and collectively, an opportunity to reexamine, dive deep, change course, and reaffirm or reenergize oneself for ministry, to connect to The Source of Our Creativity. (And in my case, time to write!)

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1992. Print.

Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.

Scharmer, Claus Otto, and Peter M. Senge. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges: The Social Technology of Presencing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2009. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957. Print.

robin-currasRobin Miller Currás has 20+ years experience as a PCUSA pastor, with a majority of those years working in interdenominational settings. She has experience in adaptive leadership, family systems, transitional ministry, mediation and conflict management, New Beginnings mission studies, New Church Development, and missional church dynamics. She is a coach trainee in an International Coach Federation accredited program through Auburn Theological Seminary. Robin is mom to Ben and Eve, and wife to Carlos.  

Chasing the Music That Hasn’t Yet Been Played

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bill Carter

It was the opening set on Friday night at the jazz club. Blues Alley in Washington D.C. was buzzing with excitement as the famed band The Yellowjackets took the stage. The drummer began an African rhythm, and the bass player quickly joined in. The pianist punctured the air with syncopated chords, playing in a fierce rhythm.

The music was new to my daughter Meg and me, but we could quickly discern the melody as the saxophonist played it. The tune swirled and churned, building toward a climax. Suddenly the band stopped – and the saxophonist leaped into the unknown. He played a flurry of notes by himself before the band entered with precision and surged forward. The whole performance had just become a lot more complicated.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 10.26.34 AMMeg leaned across the table to ask, “What are they doing?” All I could reply was, “We don’t know yet.”

This moment of adventurous ambiguity can be disconcerting to musicians and music lovers who prefer to have all their notes confined to a page. For them, the performance follows a script. It moves ahead as the composer wanted it to unfold. The music is predictable, always happens on cue, and reveals few surprises. It will be judged later on accuracy and expertise (“How well did they play the pre-arranged notes?”), with the later recognition that a small measure of interpretation can personalize the performance within the limitations of the written score.

But when the jazz musicians take flight, nobody knows what will come next. Even them! The saxophonist begins to compose in motion. The pianist makes instantaneous decisions about supporting him, deciding if she will go where her colleague is leading. The bass player may anchor the exploration with notes and patterns, but he and the drummer are also free to push the music toward more intensity. This could drive the saxophonist to spiral even further into the sky.

This is music-in-the-making, the essence of jazz. It is offered in the face of enormous risks. If the song is evaluated too soon, all creativity will implode. If the co-creators stop listening to one another, the whole performance can dis-integrate. If any of the team members dominate or withhold their input, the enjoyment of true collaboration is lost. At any moment, the tune could devolve into self-indulgent blathering. Or it could unlock fresh insights and lead us into new directions. When it works well, take note of the broad smiles on the musicians’ faces. There can be sheer ecstasy in shared art.

I suppose those involved in transitional ministry may be tempted to play it safe, just like the churches that employ them. What worked in the past? How do we stabilize the chaos or assuage the grief? Can we spackle the financial holes? Tighten down the operations? Empower fresh leadership? The memories of a receding Christendom are strong in many congregations, and it will often feel most comfortable if they can return to an earlier time when all was predictable.

Yet here is where the improvising saxophonist is our prophet. With a strong gust of wind, the jazzer pushes forward. From the precipice of risk, the creative musician steps into a still evolving future. How can this happen? Only from a grounded understanding of what music is and how it works, the seasoned confidence of years of musical practice, and the willingness to midwife something new. Jazz, like transitional ministry, is created by people who know what they are doing, yet are willing to trust that what lies ahead is more satisfying than what used to be. Done with the full engagement of communal mind and spirit, it is authentic and coherent to what is needed here and now.

The saxophonist David Liebman, a mentor in music and ministry, puts it this way: “We do not dust off museum pieces that are bound to the past. Rather we explore what a fresh conversation will unlock for our future.” Is he speaking of church or band stand?  Both.

There is much wisdom for ministry that can be mined from the creative arts. I welcome your reflections as we serve the God who is still creating.

bill carterBill Carter has been practicing congregational ministry for 31 years and hopes to get it right someday. He is also a longtime practitioner of jazz in the church, having founded the Presbybop Quartet in 1993. Find out more about his jazz ministry and the band’s music at

Active Questioning About Transition

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Rhebergen

All ministry is transitional. We are living in the midst of a sea of change in every element of life: our own and the life of the people, systems, and cultures in which we serve as ministers. Transitional ministry is consciously using our gifts and abilities to work with others to live into this change as Jesus Christ would have us live. We are called to use our particular gifts, for a particular time, in a particular place, for the greater purpose of empowering the good news of God’s grace. Martin Luther King, Jr, one of the best transitional pastors, observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I would humbly add that the arc of the gospel is long, and it bends towards love.

I believe these arcs are one, and this arc informs the direction of the church as it moves forward with the flow of change. Transitional ministry seeks to consciously work with the change bringing us more fully into God’s arc of justice and of love. Standing against the flow is to be washed away, and invites failure to understand that the flood of change is part of God’s creative action. Attempting to channel the flow for our own purposes fails to accept our need to be continually transformed by the Spirit at work in the world in which we live. Simply riding the flow of change without thought to the arc of the gospel leaves us adrift in a flood of anxiety.

paul transitional seaTo participate in the flow of God’s grace in the midst of change, here are some questions to consider as we seek to move with the church into the future Christ holds for us:

Would it be helpful for us to strip away the language of Installed Pastors and Temporary Pastors? Congregations often experience anxiety when it thinks it is without “real” pastoral ministry. In contrast, pastors often feel the lack of personal financial and professional security that comes with ending one temporary position and searching for another.  For many of us, both ordained clergy and the congregations, the false perception of a “permanent position” becomes idolatrous as we enter into the seductive search for the “one” position or pastor that is God’s choice for us.  What has happened to the understanding that God will work for good in all things for those who believe?

Would any “good” pastor work well in all pastoral positions?  While there are a few teaching elders, and perhaps many more ruling elders, who can function well in any situation, for most of us there needs to be a good matching of the skills, talents, abilities, and energy of the pastor with the needs of a congregation.  Our matching process has often become a beauty pageant that doesn’t respect the real stories of both congregations and teaching elders. The placement for interims and transitional pastors has become about finding an available body to fill the position.  What if we took seriously understandings of “congregational lifecycles” and placed clergy with leadership traits most appropriate for the lifecycle stage of a particular congregation? What if we considered personality profiles and stopped calling introverted teaching elders to extroverted congregations? We could do “what ifs” with every tool we use to look at the identity and make up of a congregation.  What if we taught our search committees the value of these tools?

What if we considered the reality of a particular congregation? We tend to measure the life of a congregation and the ability of a pastor against a scale of success measured by numbers of members and dollars. The church of Jerusalem did not tally numbers when the Apostles appealed for an offering to assist the followers of the Way. We need pastors who are able to challenge congregations to run with them into the future, just as we need pastors who will walk with congregations through the changes that have enveloped them. Some churches need pastors who can sit with congregations suffering deep wounds from conflict and abuse, and some need the mercy of a chaplain who will be with them through their time of decline and even death.  Shouldn’t we take seriously the varied needs of congregations and find ways to provide pastoral presence appropriate to where they are?

What if we keep on asking the questions that will help congregations and their leaders to better understand how navigate the river of change that is carrying us into God’s future?

paul transitionalPaul Rhebergen is a long time pastor working in transitional settings, who enjoys asking questions, and living with the tension between what has been and what will be.  He also loves walking in the woods, reading suspense novels, and finding time with his wife and three adult daughters.