Finding Inspiration

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dwight Christenbury

I long ago got bored with the idea of trying to get anything practical out of attending a conference. Life’s too short, and anyhow it becomes a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees sort of thing. You spend all your time stalking the perfect tree so you can chop it down and drag it home and make good practical use of it, but in the course of the chopping and dragging what you mainly end up doing is making a lot of unnatural noise, trampling the undergrowth, scaring away the animals, and choking the fish with soil runoff.

So these days I go to conferences looking mainly for inspiration, which is a lot more fun and has turned out to be thoroughly worthwhile. In the case of NEXT Church National Gatherings, I’ve found inspiration not only in the usual places — worship services and plenaries and workshops — but in the conversations and in the solitary wanderings through a strange city and even in that most-Presbyterian of places: the hotel bar. In all of these regards, the recent National Gathering in Kansas City lived up to the standard set by its predecessors.

So where did I find inspiration? In the verbal and visual interpretation of John 4 by women from National Capital Presbytery, who brought the Samaritan woman to life in both bold and subtle new ways, and in Alonzo Johnson’s fierce truth telling and his reminder that we’re called not to hold Living Water in our canteens but to be that water, seeping relentlessly into dry and parched places.

In Nancy Arbuthnot and Gerry Hendershot’s “Verse and Vision” workshop, which, along with the nice people seated at my table, managed to turn a godawful grey meeting room in the bowels of the Marriott into my childhood back yard on a summer evening, just at the tail-end of dusk, as we reflected on Jesus’s words in Luke 8:17.

In a strange, wordy (but in a good way) late-afternoon worship service in which we were all jolted out of our drowsiness by the Neema Community Church Choir and a dawning, in-your-face realization that we’re full of shit if we go around thinking that us has nothing in common with them.

In Soong-Chan Rah’s tasty culinary creation — the Great American Gumbo (or was it jambalaya?) — and in Rodger Nishioka’s infuriating ability to put creative words and pictures to ideas that I might have had once but then forgotten (and all the while making us church people realize how thoroughly wasted are our Sunday school hours).

In the lovely sanctuary of Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral (in whose rafters the strains of “I Love to Tell the Story” had probably never previously echoed), where Jenny McDevitt brilliantly used Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” as an Invitation to the Table, and where, if Te Deum had kept singing, I would still be sitting.

And of course in the restaurants (man, those Kansas City-ans do love their beef) and bars (a really good Old Fashioned at the Cleaver & Cork, which was made even more tasty by the fact that Fourth Presbyterian Church picked up the tab) and hotel lobbies and hallways where the inspiration was in conversation with old friends and new friends. And by conversation I don’t mean small talk but real, challenging, insightful, deep talk — the kind of talk that makes you realize what you’ve been missing (even if you’re an introvert who actually has met a stranger).

So no, I have no intention of going back to the days when I attended conferences seeking practical tips, tools, and strategies that I could drag home and put to work (even if, as it turns out, I end up with a handful of them anyway). Inspiration is much more, well, inspiring — and I’m grateful to those who work hard and long to put NEXT Church National Gatherings together, because their efforts have consistently paid off.

But lest anyone think that I’m either insufficiently critical or on the NEXT Church payroll, let me be fair and balanced in my reflections on the 2017 National Gathering: my hotel room had a really lousy view.


Dwight Christenbury graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005 with dual M.Div./MACE degrees. He now serves as Associate Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he’s been for a really long time. He lives in nearby Black Mountain with his wife, Carol Steele, and their children, Olin and Dean, and he may or may not be working on a book.

Race, Relationship, Repentance

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Foster Connors

Like most worthwhile things, the NEXT Church strategy team’s initial commitment to become 50%+ non-white in our leadership was born more out of Gospel idealism than out of competency. We believe that the “next Church” will reflect the culture in which the PC(USA) is situated, a culture that will be 50%+ non-white by 2042. God will make that a reality and the PC(USA) has an opportunity to be a part of it if we choose. I believe Paul’s words to the Galatians subordinating the divisions that we take for granted to a unity in Christ that is as clear as the color of the water in our baptisms. But as a Calvinist, I also know that racism coats everything in America. It warps the way we see each other. It’s warped the Church, too. There is no way to dismantle a sinful system that’s had generations to percolate, without a “gird up your loins” gritty commitment to abide with each other through the crap that we all swim in.

As you would expect, living into that commitment hasn’t been easy. One example of the way this came to the fore at the 2017 National Gathering was the Tuesday morning “crowd-sourced band.”  Steve Lindsley, a talented musician (and pastor, too!), had about as “nexty” an idea as you could come up with: to create a music team entirely off social media. The band would play well known “secular” music that would carry the worship service. It was risky, participatory, and agile – all values that NEXT Church has trumpeted as essential qualities for church to get beyond institutional rigidity. Steve was sensitive to a playlist that reflected diverse genres within the organizing idea. Then a member of our group raised the important question: was this going to be a bunch of white people leading “we shall overcome?” What about Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (both on the playlist)? And could two white guys really rap “Where Is the Love?” with any kind of worship integrity? Of course, having never met each other before we had to first find out, “Are we all white?”

When we discovered that we were, in fact, all white, some uncomfortable questions arose. Should we remove “Redemption Song” and “We Shall Overcome” to avoid cultural appropriation? Should we actively seek out persons of color to make the group less white? Should we try to contextualize each piece? Should we call the whole thing off? Immediately we were face to face with the ongoing, glaring sin that we all live with in the Presbyterian Church: we are whiter than God would have us be. We solicited some second opinions and came up with a plan. We would drop the white guys rapping “Where Is the Love” in favor of a video montage. We would add some context to the “We Shall Overcome” piece. Originally we were also going to add context to “Redemption Song” and to the other pieces, but in rehearsal it started to feel stilted, even defensive. We scrapped that plan, and added a few sentences of context at the beginning.

Evaluating the worship experience later, our diverse strategy team commended the group for some of our choices, but also critiqued the decision not to add context for the Bob Marley piece. One member of the team raised a question that was completely outside of my field of vision – whether the word “band” subtly signals “white music.” Could adjusting that one word result in a musical group with more diversity? Maybe. Maybe not. As we discussed other experiences of worship beyond Tuesday morning, an African-American member of the team was almost apologetic in her response: “It pains me to share my reaction with you. I don’t often share this kind of feeling in this kind of a setting.” But this strategy team member did share that feeling. And I am grateful for it.

Two things I’ve learned over the years as a person crossing racial boundaries (and other types of boundaries, too): healing is only possible when relationships are strong enough to handle the pain that comes to the surface; AND forgiveness and repentance (not perfection) are the only foundations on which to build real relationships. We’ll never grow as a church if we’re afraid of doing things that reveal our racism. We have to build relationships that are able to handle difference and division when they arise, calling out the racism that warps us, and moving forward together with courage and deeper trust. These are some of the conversations we’re having in NEXT Church leadership. With God’s grace, we’ll keep having them, building a broader community, and the church will move a little closer toward God’s dreams for us.


Andrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD – www.buildiaf.org), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. He serves on the executive team of NEXT Church. Andrew holds degrees from Duke University and Columbia Theological Seminary, was the 2001 recipient of the David H.C. Read Preaching Award, and was named 2016 “Marylander of the Year – Runner Up” along with two other BUILD colleagues for their work negotiating the largest Community Benefits Agreement in Baltimore history. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors. They live in Baltimore with their two children.

The Call to Create

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kate Foster Connors

I have no idea why I signed up for the workshop, but when I read “Thirsting to Create,” my mouse clicked on that option without a thought. By the time I arrived at the NEXT Church National Gathering in March, I had completely forgotten what workshops I had signed up for, so I was surprised to see an art workshop listed on the back of my nametag. (I actually read it and wondered if it was a mistake.)

In another life, before I had children, and before I went to seminary, I took art classes, learning how to throw pottery on the wheel, and exploring watercolor painting. I also wrote poetry, and took long walks in the woods. Years later (after seminary, and a few years into ministry), I was fortunate to be able to stay home with my children when they were young, and those years were rich with making homemade Christmas cards, mixing homemade playdough, learning how to knit, and creating art with my children nearly every day.

My girls are now teenagers, and while they continue to love and make art, I cannot remember the last time I took some time to make something. Actually, I can remember – it was at the National Gathering, in the “Thirsting to Create” workshop.

Despite my initial shock at being registered for an art workshop (!), I went anyway.

The room was set up with all kinds of materials:  papers of all colors and textures, magazines, glue, markers, paint, and yarn, and………I looked around, found a seat, and felt myself exhale, and then inhale, filled with an unexpected but familiar sense of delight and peace.

In the middle of the tables were books, piles of rough-edged papers sewn together with plain, gray cardboard covers. Our assignment was to choose one, and make it our own. I took the book closest to me, opening it to examine the papers inside. The pages of the book were from an old hymnal, and the first page of mine, cut off so only about the last 1/3 of the page was visible, read “LOVE.”

Already ambushed by the overpowering joy and calm that filled me at being surrounded by art materials (!), and given a block of time completely dedicated to making art (!), it became abundantly clear to me that I was standing on holy ground. Like a burning bush announcing to Moses that God had some plans for him, the book-from-an-old-hymnal that began with “LOVE” shouted a reminder that God has given me an assignment in my current call: to facilitate ways for all of God’s children to enact God’s radical and abundant love.

I covered my book in beautiful paper with a blue and green and gold design that reminded me of middle eastern art. Too pretty. I found some old magazines, and cut out words that spoke to me:  Spirit, collaboration, unpredictable, a whole new way, you find there’s nothing these 3 can’t handle. Too predictable.

While I worked on my book, I talked with the people around me, learning about one woman’s ministry of sewing stuffed animals to give to children, and of another woman’s project of bringing “Messy Church” to her congregation (I LOVE that idea!).

I grabbed a roll of silver duct tape. Shiny, but practical, and tear-able. Perfect. I tore 2 strips, sticking them to the front of my too-pretty, too-predictable book, making a rough-edged, imperfect, shiny cross on the front. Perfect.

We ran out of time, but I walked out of the workshop with that book in my hand, confident now that I had been exactly where I needed to be.

I now have my book-from-an-old-hymnal on my desk, staring at me to help me remember that creating is not a luxury – it is a central part of who I am, of how I remember who I am, and who God is calling me to be in the world. Using my hands to make something gets me out of my head, clearing a path for the Spirit to speak without the clutter that often stands in its way.


Kate Foster Connors is director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Baltimore Presbytery. She is a 2001 graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, where she spent a lot of time on the streets of Atlanta, learning what it meant to encounter the Word in the city. She lives in Baltimore, MD and is married to Andrew Foster Connors, also a pastor. Together, they have 2 teenage daughters.

Adult Education – Small Groups

Our May 2017 Church Leaders Roundtable focused on adult faith formation. Some of the conversation centered around small groups as a model for adult Christian education. While small groups are popular, they can burn out pretty quickly. Participants in the roundtable discussed models of small groups they found to be most successful.

One model of small group is a supper club where members of the group share meals at each others’ home. This model offers great fellowship, but can be lacking in the Christian education/faith formation area. Another model that offers good fellowship with a bit more faith formation offers small groups that stem from a particular area of interest: running, knitting, grandparenting, etc. Church staff and the Christian education ministry team offer a devotion that is used by each of the small groups, and the groups commit to use the devotion in each meeting and pray for one another.

There are two common models that are based primarily on deepening faith and education. One is an intense, weekly model that requires daily work. This could be a group using the Companions in Christ or Disciple curriculum, or other long term studies. The second model that is popular is a short-term (6-8 week) study around a particular topic or book that the whole church is focused on, often that is supported by a sermon series. There would be multiple small groups that congregation members could be a part of, all of which would meet at different times so that there are options for a wide variety of schedules.

What models of small groups have been successful in your own adult faith formation efforts? Let us know by commenting below!

Adult Education Topics/Curriculum

Our May 2017 Church Leaders Roundtable focused on adult faith formation. Some of the conversation centered around education topics and curriculum. Here are the resources roundtable participants shared.

While there are many excellent resources available for children’s curriculum, it can be difficult to find resources for adult education. Here are some options of curriculum or class ideas vouched for by Presbyterian congregations:

Curricula

  • Disciple Bible Curriculum – an intensive study requiring daily work by class members.
  • Feasting on the Word – follows the Revised Common Lectionary.
  • The Wired Word – Simple article about a current event that can be sent out by email. It includes scripture as a lens from which to read the article and questions for conversation.

Topics/Ideas

  • Try flipping the script: rather having topics on theology or scripture, frame classes around questions people are wrestling with in life and bringing wisdom from tradition and scripture to that topic.
    • One way this has been done is having big boxes in the narthex where congregation members can put in their questions that pastors will tackle over the length of the class. Examples of questions could be:
      • Inclusive language: why call God father not mother
      • We believe Jesus is way, truth, life. What does that mean for other religions?
      • Why different bible translations? Why are the words different?
      • Preparing people to talk about death and dying.
  • Spirituality of Conflict from the Corrymeela community in Ireland can be used for a Sunday School class. It is lectionary based, but you must be willing to read the lectionary through the lens of conflict. It’s also free!
  • Faith & Film series – select films that could be explored through a theological lens. Invite people to watch the film during the week and then have a class discussion on Sunday.

Blest Be the Tie that Binds

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rachel Helgeson

The request came from the most unlikely of places. Judy was always quiet and loving but rarely spoke out against others or things in fear of making waves. It wasn’t that Judy didn’t have an opinion about things – it was that she valued the relationships that drew her into the fellowship of our congregation more than the conflict. Judy lived and still breathes the words drafted by the hymnist John Fawcett, “blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love and fellowship with kindred minds is like to that above.”

Even so, it was a surprise when she softly raised her voice in the middle of a Presbyterian meeting and said… “Would it be ok if I hung a tie out in our back shelter with socks, scarves, and hats? Because I know…” (she hesitated to say) “we know that there are folks who are living in the 3 acres of woods behind our church in tents or less than that.”

The room stood still, for it was a rare occasion that Judy made a request that had the potential of being controversial – or get push back for not being the way that we do things here – but it was her voice that helped get others to say yes, yes of course, we should do that.

So where do we go from here? In our small corner of the world in pseudo rural Southern Illinois, the problem of homelessness is growing. The state of Illinois has cut resources for folks suffering from mental illness and addiction. A large state prison is located only 20-30 minutes away from our “big town” amongst the smaller farming villages and communities. And while our little corner of the world has a homeless shelter that was endorsed at its inception by the community with the strong influence of my congregation, it came with a price. That price has been lower residency of guests because it is a family shelter functioning in the midst of ordinances that prevent people without homes from residing there if they test positive for drugs or alcohol or, in certain cases, have a felony.

And while I felt a strong pull to learn and grow around this sort of mission work, the work of the people, I felt unprepared to understand how to address the tie that binds us to those who have faced conviction, were recently released, and now have no place to go except the back “forty” of First Presbyterian Church of Mt Vernon.

It was that simple request from Judy that started with a rope tied from one pole to another with socks, hats, gloves, and scarves that helped me rethink: what are we doing here? This is the tie that binds the people living in the woods to the people worshipping in the sanctuary immediately in front of them. It was at the NEXT Church National Gathering, with the help of the creative spirit of the ad hoc, crowd-sourced worship band and the workshop led by Hans Hallundbaek about the rehabilitation through arts program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, that I learned the Holy Spirit breathes life in the ties that bind us in new and interesting ways as the Body of Christ.

I learned that for many it is uncomfortable to deal with the overpopulation of the prison system. Many are afraid of those who are released back into society. And even more disturbing is that it is very common for former inmates to return to prison because they have not learned any soft skills to transfer to the outside world, leaving them in the cold returning to old habits.

The tie that holds our socks, gloves, and scarves is a visual reminder to my congregation of all of these folks and has had us start to ask the question: what can we do better? How can we equip people to live fully into the lives that God has called them to live without pressuring them to be something different and helping them learn basic soft skills to be able to function in the outside world? What began with a tie that binds in our shelter has now grown into a conversation with our local homeless shelter, community leaders, and the community at large asking how we can serve those experiencing homelessness better. Does it mean housing them in our current, more established family homeless shelter, or does it mean thinking outside of the box and doing something different?

I can’t say that we have answers at this point. But I would say that the time I spent at the NEXT Church National Gathering opened a door for me to remain non-anxious in the midst of the questions. Others have been there before, improving their way to an answer through the melody line of a production held on the inside of a maximum security correctional facility. To hear with an open ear each person’s concern while still acknowledging that there is a problem. To be available to speak between various organizations and help them listen to one another while still attempting to come up with a new solution to strengthen the tie that binds us together.

It started with an unlikely voice acknowledging the thing we, my community of faith, all knew but many tried to ignore and disregard. It helped us see the people in the margins who were and still are quite literally living in our backyard. And we hope to continue to seek out how the tie that binds us in Christian love builds up the holy fellowship of kindred minds beyond the walls of the National Gathering and into our little corner of the world in Southern Illinois.


Rachel Helgeson is the solo pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, IL, and is still learning and growing into God’s unimaginable call. She never imagined that her gifts in music and passion for mission would be synthesized right in her congregation’s backyard but is grateful for the formative places that led her to this place (including her studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas’ Lilly Residency Program, and her prior musical training & work in Pennsylvania and New York.)

A Place of Response and Action

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Rosenau

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire

The NEXT Church National Gathering really stuck with me this year. I’ve been to a previous National Gathering and came home inspired and renewed. The same thing happened in 2017 as well.

What was different this year was the sense of urgency and action. Gone is the “woe is me” trope that the denomination of our past is shrinking. Instead of reacting to the situation in the church at large, the National Gathering is now a grassroots gathering for something: for including all voices at the table, for amplifying the contributions of young leaders, and for standing up against injustice.

The Sarasota Statement has had a lot of buzz since it debuted at the National Gathering. I particularly appreciate how the statement directly addresses groups of people and actions that will be taken to bring reconciliation. Not simply a statement of faith, this statement addresses its intended audience and brings the conversation to a place of response and action.

Through the month of May, the congregation I pastor, Culver City Presbyterian Church, is taking four Sundays to walk through the Sarasota Statement in worship. Below are the sermon titles, scripture passages, and themes of each service, each of which corresponds with one part of the Sarasota Statement.

Preamble 

“Kingdom Come” Matthew 6:7-15

The Preamble of the Sarasota Statement is rich with theology and imagery, the most grounding image being that of the coming kingdom. Jesus is Lord over a kingdom that exists already, as the statement reads. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prays for the kingdom to be present on Earth as it already exists in heaven. That means God’s kingdom is possible; a reign free of violence, starvation, and injustice can be achieved on this earth, not just in heaven. Jesus prayed for it and Jesus calls us to join in that kingdom work here and now.

Part 1 – To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim

“Peace in All Its Forms” Luke 8:1-3

We claim so many tribes. Like the star-bellied sneetches in the Dr. Seuss story, we create differences between people even if they don’t already exist. And when they do exist, we oftentimes become so entrenched in our own tribes that we “ignore, reject or demonize” others.

First, we recognize what tribes we claim, whether we have done it intentionally or not. Then we work to build a community across those tribes just as Jesus calls us to. Jesus called women to leadership, even though they were outside of the “tribe” of maleness he was a part of. Systems of power and privilege keep divisions in place, and we commit to intentionally work against them.

Part 2 – To the people we dehumanize and dismiss on the basis of political and ideological differences, and those who suffer at the hands of our idolatry

“Watered Down Idolatry” Jeremiah 29:4-7

The people in exile had lived through so much suffering, they held the Babylonians in contempt. They had been wronged and abused and could not see the humanity in the people keeping them there. And yet God through Jeremiah calls them to build houses and marry into Babylonian families. The people hearing these words likely did not welcome the call. They wanted to protect their identity and not open themselves up to the Babylonians.

Our context is quite different, and yet we often “conflate Jesus’ message with political platforms and look to partisan ideologies to affirm [our] ethics and action.” We commit to prayer for our political system and our leaders as well as speaking on behalf of those silenced or who may differ from us.

Part 3 – To the people for whom we have failed to seek justice, offer hospitality, or fully embrace as part of God’s beloved family

“On the Other Foot”  Leviticus 19:33-34

Whenever I travel in other countries and am confused or lost, I have overwhelming gratitude for locals who come to my aid. As a teenager, the light bulb went off – Oh, this is how all the foreign exchange students in my school must have felt. 

“For you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” is God’s not-so-subtle reminder of when the shoe was on the other foot. Welcoming and protecting immigrants and refugees is as ancient a practice as our faith. God’s people are on the move throughout scripture, often moving either toward conquest or fleeing from it. This is still our story. As people whose story transcends the narrative of any one ethnic group or lineage, we are called to listen to the stories of those who are moving now and stand with them.

The Church is called to live differently than the powers and principalities of this world. We are called to stem the cultural tide of racism and inequality in the way we do church, to intentionally work against our biases and form a community of equality. Since we swim in the waters of injustice from Monday to Saturday, we have to work very hard at doing things differently in the Church.

The NEXT Church National Gathering this year and the Sarasota Statement in particular has given me sustaining water for the long journey, overflowing to my congregation and beyond.


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

Creating a Permeable Community

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah-Dianne Jones

As the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) with NEXT Church, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on community. One of the core tenets of the YAV program is intentional Christian community. We are placed with 4-8 other young adults and asked to make a covenant with one another, share a budget, and truly become a community. A huge part of my reflection has revolved around this intentional community I live with, but I’ve also been thinking about community within local congregations, NEXT Church, and the National Gathering.

Community is hard. It takes a lot of work to build a strong and supportive one no matter the setting. I have learned that the struggle with building community comes in large part because there’s no one way to make it work. The effort has to come from both sides.

At the National Gathering, people come together to worship, learn, and enjoy one another’s company in a community made up of people from all over the United States. For many, it’s a time to come together with friends that they don’t get to see very often, swap stories about life in ministry, and catch up. It’s a space in the year to take a breath and release some of the stress of everyday routine.

I attended the National Gathering for two years before I came to be NEXT Church’s YAV. It has become one of the highlights of my year, but I remember walking into registration at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2015 and feeling completely overwhelmed. There I was with a group of Presbyterians that I didn’t know very well and I didn’t really know what to do. As the National Gathering went by, I began to meet different people through friends and my comfort level increased. Last year, in Atlanta, I knew people. My community was there. I always had people to sit with at lunch and knew people to ask about going to dinner. For me, going back into a community I was now familiar with, it wasn’t an experience of feeling isolated.

In Kansas City, I approached the National Gathering from a different side. My role was to coordinate volunteers and be present at the information desk, so I did not spend much time in the ballroom. I did, however, hear comments from some folks about feeling isolated.

I don’t think that there’s any worse feeling than being surrounded by a community and feeling isolated from it. It’s an experience that I have had before and would love to never repeat. I have found myself thinking about the work that the community must put in. How can a community make itself more easily permeable? How can we be an open and welcoming space to those who are entering our communities for the first time? What do we need to change about the way that we encounter others so that they feel that they are seen?

These are questions that don’t apply solely to the National Gathering. I think that congregations, youth groups, presbyteries, and neighborhoods should be asking them every week! We are called to be in true community with one another, not to be isolated. What does that look like? I think that sometimes the answers are simpler than we might think. It might be that a door opens when you sit at a different table or in a different pew every week. It might be that you take on the practice of noticing those who seem to be spending a lot of time alone and making a point of speaking to them. In my community with the other YAVs, we make a point of truly showing up for one another, even when we’d rather stay to ourselves. A question was now ask each other during our community meetings is, “What did you risk for the community this week?” It might be that we risked vulnerability when it would be easier to keep our feelings or experiences to ourselves, or it could be that we risked a new experience that is out of our comfort zone. Our new practice reminds each of us that the work that we each do individually to build our community is critical to its strength. These are small steps, but they’re a start.

We are better and stronger when we are in community with one another. Community isn’t an easy thing, but it’s worth the work.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Some New Code Words

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by David Stipp-Bethune

My 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering began while I was still “on the way,” when I met a turn in the road overshadowed by a billboard:

“DIVERSITY” is a code word for #whitegenocide

I hadn’t caught my breath when a couple of curves later revealed another, larger billboard, listing all the white supremacy TV channels.

I didn’t want any part of this! I pinched myself, attempting to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, because I instantly identified with the Magi for whom a “dream” invited them to return home “by another way,” and I had already begun re-plotting my post-conference route!

I simply don’t get this yearning some have for being so divided, so “anti-diversity,” claiming a Christ who causes division and suffering rather than leading the great, diverse, Kingdom of God in all its glory. This lust for white power and domination is wholly and entirely inconsistent with what I know of Jesus that I secretly pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” as my own code words for “my Jesus is coming to kick your Jesus’ a$$.”

I’ve always believed “America” (that presumptive code word for the United States) is at her best when we are an open, diverse, color-filled people who share equality and freedom. Much more so, the Church. Part of the language I’ve been taught was “a great melting pot,” but that’s just a code word for “white-washing” everyone so to see ourselves with no marks of difference or diversity—a way of hiding this ugly ingrained racism that robs us all of our identity. Especially the Church.

One of the images I encountered at the National Gathering was a promise born from an ancient people trying to live into “an incarnate Kingdom of God.” In a conversation about the transition from a first-century Hellenized meal called a symposium to the meal we claim as the Eucharist, my friend and colleague Jeff Bryan reiterated the view that the banquet of the Lord would never fail to bring everyone to the table—literally, the whole stinking community. You would find yourself, quite unwittingly, dipping your bread in the hummus with someone else, not just wholly unexpectedly, but with whom you could never allow yourself to be associated with. Yet you’re already guilty by association, because you’re at this dinner party together with Jesus.

I’ve always had this idea I really shouldn’t want to dip my bread with a bunch of white supremacists.

I live in Arkansas. And while I don’t want to disparage the whole state on account of those here who espouse the anathema of racial purity led by white people, it’s definitely true that enough people here are as prepared as ever to fight for a way of life that I want no part of—i.e. segregation, uniformity, monochrome, black and white, separate but equal. And when I say “fight” I don’t mean the way we fight about what scripture means or the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary.

And some of those people are in our churches regularly!

And I struggle to know exactly what I need to be doing about it.

Because “church” is one of the places where we have a history of being divided by issues of race.  Maybe that’s why in the new-to-me-congregation I’m serving, one of the “rules” has always been “check your politics at the door—we don’t talk about these things in church.” Code words for “we know we disagree and if we have to admit it, it leads to division.”

But it’s either the meal of the Kingdom’s freedom, joy, diversity, and love; or it’s not.  “Jesus, bread, and wine” are—or should be—code words for living together—not because we agree, but maybe because we don’t?

Because “church” is one of the places we think or believe we should be more “at one” with each other, “communion” is another code word we use to demonstrate oneness in Christ, downplaying difference and diversity because we must be “a part of the same.”

But maybe Jesus had another idea. That a part of loving one another is not based on agreement.  But that we are at table as the Psalmist says, “even in the presence of our enemies.”

The Lord’s Table: code word for Christ’s holding the different together.


David Stipp-Bethune has a passion for most things PCUSA, thinks General Assembly should still meet at least annually, and currently serves First Presbyterian Church El Dorado, Arkansas as pastor, having arrived in November 2016 and after pastorates in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Arkansas, and Nebraska. 

Change is Constant, Growth is Optional

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Merrill Neel

One of my colleagues on the church staff loves to remind all of us that “change is constant, growth is optional.” My experience at this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering confirmed the first part of that statement, and has challenged me with regards to the second.

This was my third National Gathering. I find these events a helpful and invigorating use of my time and a great way to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. This year was no different, but as I left Kansas City I realized that I left feeling old and very white – but in a growth-producing way.

It was clear to me that the leadership of NEXT Church is getting younger, and that is good. While my friend Lee Hinson-Hasty has looked at the numbers and has warned us that there will be a pastor shortage down the line, the pastors and leaders who are young now are faithful, and creative, and talented. That is great news for the PCUSA and for the world. But as a 50-something pastor, I felt a little put out to pasture. Why weren’t we singing more hymns? Don’t my 20+ years of experience count for something? Does anyone else here remember when we used to mimeograph the Sunday bulletin?

Change is constant and often hard. My growth into old age is constant. I am challenged to consider how I might give up positions and opportunities that come my way so that someone younger might have the chance to do something. I am also challenged to think about how I might mentor a younger pastor or leader, and how I will continue to learn from a younger pastor or leader.

Harder, and more serious, is my coming to terms with my own racism and the ways the NEXT Church National Gathering challenged me to continue to do that. I’m a quarter Swiss. I serve a congregation in Portland, Oregon, the whitest city in America. I have privileges out the wazoo because of the color of my skin. NEXT Church is helping me identify that privilege, helping me understand what happens to those who do not have the privilege of pale skin color (or education, or a decent pay with benefits, or a particular sexual orientation or gender identity, or so many other things), and helping me confront my own fears and insecurities about speaking out against racism in its many forms.

In particular, I continue to think about Paul Roberts’ workshop and how I can work on reflecting and building up the Beloved Community in my own context. His sermon, along with Alonzo Johnson’s sermon, was stirring and truth-telling – how can my preaching be the same, given that we come from such different places? Soong-Chan Rah’s presentation continues to encourage me to think about how I can lead the congregation in the present to be prepared for a church that will look very different, because of changing demographics, in the future.

I have come to terms with the fact that I am getting older, and I continue to need to confront my own racism and the racism around me, especially in the church. I am grateful to NEXT Church, and its leaders who give so much of their time and energy, to the endeavor: you encourage me to grow amid so much change.


Beth Merrill Neel serves as Co-Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon.  She blogs at www.holdfasttowhatisgood.com, and she is excited about turning 53 in July.  When not at church she enjoys baking with her 11-year-old daughter and coloring as meditation.