Just Getting Started

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Kukla

In his writings and teaching, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh often tells an old Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

He uses this to talk about the dangers of habit-energy that keeps us dong the same things over and over again, often spinning our wheels in the process; the dangers of inner turmoil and busy-ness; and the dangers of forgetfulness. He stresses the need to stop. Calm. Rest. Heal.

Our own tradition gives us these same resources in the practice of Sabbath. The need, not the luxury, to stop. The need, not the luxury, to let the world turn without you. The need, not the luxury, of realizing our worth doesn’t lie in production. The need, not the luxury, to be idle and rest and abide in the presence of God’s good creation, free of agenda.

We have been over a lot in the last month that I hope is helpful for you as you prepare to become, or continue to be, an officer of the church. And this final post is supposed to be the most practical and give you further resources to equip you and your community on the ongoing journey of fulfilling God’s calling as a community of faith. But first I want us to stop and remember that if we are simply riding more horses, in more directions, with greater speed… we are helping no one.

More church does not make better disciples.

Sabbath remains a foundational resource of faithfulness — so lead in sabbath for God’s sake, for your sake, and to the benefit of your whole community. Let these ideas percolate in you, let them inspire in you, let them settle in you…and then take a big deep breath. Pray. Remember. Listen. Abide.

God has called you to the most monumental of tasks: being nothing more and nothing less than the Body of Christ in this time and your place. And yet… God already sees in you the gifts and abilities to accomplish this task well. Trust God by trusting yourself. And enjoy the ride. Your joy in leadership may just be the greatest gift of all, and to that end I leave you with these words that Eugene Peterson quotes from Phyllis McGinley in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

“I have read that during the process of canonization the Catholic Church demands proof of joy in the candidate, and although I have not been able to track down chapter and verse I like the suggestion that dourness is not a sacred attribute.”

Further Resources for Officer Training
The following resources were collected through various crowd-sourcing efforts. This list is barely scratching the surface of available options but will, I hope, help you make the next step in digging deeper into the transformative work of being a church leader.

The Book of Order
As a whole, even with the new form of government, the Book of Order is a long and winding document; but it holds great treasures and perhaps none better as a starting point than The Foundation of Presbyterian Polity. Once you collapse white space it’s only a dozen pages and a rich foundation of why we do what we do the way we do — and you could design an entire course around this section of the Book of Order itself.

The Book of Confessions
As with the Book of Order, we often neglect the richness of The Book of Confessions because taken as a whole it’s an overwhelming resource. But there are many ways to engage our confessional documents to feed our leadership. Two strategies: using excerpts of confessional statements to start discussion at the beginning of each meeting, and assigning different confessions to each officer and having them report back to the whole with a summary of context, primary message, and take-aways.

Ordination Questions
We hope everyone gets a chance to engage our ordination questions (found in the Book of Order) beyond answering them publicly during their ordination. Some congregations have found them a helpful way to engage training, doing a deep dive into them: “We always discover something we hadn’t heard in them before, and it often leads to very fruitful conversation. Especially around the confessions.”

Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers by Joan Gray
This is an old favorite. One church leader adds, “We read this every year. We love it for how she encourages officers to nurture their own spiritual life as a way to grow their gifts for leadership. It helps us to frame the work of the church with prayer and study. Her image of a sailboat church (one led by the Holy Spirit) as opposed to a rowboat church (one whose members decide on their own where they want to go and work themselves to exhaustion to get there) has been so helpful for our discernment.”

Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman
Friedman’s work is important, and multiple churches report using the book. The book as a whole can be too much to digest as one part of a larger training, so some recommend using this short video introduction: “It has helped the leaders I’ve worked with lead with more courage, make principled decisions even when it might stir conflict, and be better prepared to absorb anxiety in the church rather than fuel it.”

Making Disciples, Making Leaders by Steven Eason (author) and E. Von Clemans (lesson plans)
A very appreciated and well-worn book for many, specifically geared for the PC(USA); it has a ready-made leader copy for a four-session training course.

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana
I’m pushing this one, and it has nothing to do with having gone to seminary with MaryAnn…it has everything to do with the power of “yes, and….” Pick this one up, soak it up, and share it profusely.

The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on its Gifts by Luther Snow
A good application of asset-based community development theory to the congregational visioning process.

Cultivated Ministry (NEXT Church Resource)
Cultivated Ministry was developed to move away from old metrics of ministry (like membership numbers) without losing any sense of accountability or measurement of how we are progressing, and fulfilling’s the mission has God for us in the world.

Theoacademy
A project of the Synod of Mid-America. There are a growing number of great video resources for the life of the church including a thirteen-video series available on-line on ordered ministry that is great for the training of elders and deacons.

PCUSA Ruling Elder articles
An ongoing procession of articles put out through the Office of the General Assembly to nurture the leadership of Ruling Elders in our churches.

And lastly…let us never be done. Training for everything in life is never really over. We are in the constant play of practice-reflection-learning-new practice. Consider, if you do not already, adding a training aspect to every session meeting. We do so at FPC Boise under the name: Theological Imagination Session. And there are always new resources to continue to feed our imagination, our playful faithfulness, and our fearless failure to be the Body of Christ in this time and this place.

So what resources did we miss? What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments as we feed each other in the process of being fed by God’s Spirit that is alive and well and coaxing us onward every day.


andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

Leadership Potential Left on the Margins

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mathew Eardley

I sit at a lot of tables. And wear a lot of hats. Don’t you? They keep me busy. And it keeps me isolated. What I mean by “isolated” is that when I’m busy, I find it easier to do things myself, or ask those that are already deeply invested alongside me to do ‘it.’ This is unfortunate, though, because it leaves a lot of potential leadership in the margins.

This truth I live causes me to reflect on two important questions that every leader and leadership body should be asking.

  • Who has been included in leadership?
  • Whose voices, perspectives, and insight are not being heard?

In our current world of nominating committees, diverse representation, and overbooked schedules, it is easy to default to the status quo for what leadership is and who is involved. It is a trap that congregational leadership can easily fall into: that leadership starts and ends with church officers. In reality, leaders are constantly being formed around me – and you – each and every day by example, whether it be in the church, home, classroom, workplace, or anywhere (and everywhere) else. That leadership potential is often lost by neglect. How can we take seriously the task of forming new and broader leadership within our congregations?

I submit to you that one area where there is lost opportunity is “Intergenerational Leadership”. It seems to be an ethereal, confusing, and somewhat overwhelming topic. How to do it? Who’s qualified? Who’s not? What can people do? What should they do? What is the organization’s or community’s needs?

I am fortunate (privileged, even) to have been invited into leadership positions since I was young. It wasn’t always invitational, however. There were times when I had to elbow my way into the room or around the table. Other times, I was rejected for an opportunity I thought I was perfectly suited for me. And this is still the case. Why do I tell you this? I say this because I don’t think I am alone. Engaging many people in leadership, no matter the identifier or demographic, is a challenge for most people, organizations, and communities. In the words to come, I don’t claim to have ‘the answer’ or ‘the way’ but I instead hope to suggest to you where I have felt most invited and how we might choose to think about and engage others in our respect roles, organizations, and communities.

My philosophy to address this is simple; first, understand the needs and opportunities for leadership and engagement and, to follow that with, observation and invitation.

Understand the Needs

Each of our communities have needs to be filled. They are everywhere, from an under-filled committee, open session seat, volunteers in children or youth ministry, etc. You could probably list at least five off the top of your head. Take a mental note of these, know them, think about them, reflect on what would strengthen or add to each of them. Put simply, be aware of the need. Really, it’s that simple.

Observe

Look closely at those around you being attentive to their gifts, skills, and abilities. They may not be perfect or completely refined (who’s are?), but simply inherent and evident. And I don’t mean to say that you only observe those you like or those that seem to fit a stereotype, it means to be aware and attentive of everyone, no matter their age, demographic, or other identifier. Ask yourself, “Who do I see that could do this?” As I have reflected on that question I have become more aware of the dept and breath of the gifts and talents present in our community. As an aside, I think it is important to call these out and celebrate them as often as possible. It is empowering to be affirmed.

Invite

I imagine you know where this is heading. If we are keenly aware of the needs which are present and have made note of the gifts, talents, and abilities we observe in others it becomes easy to begin inviting a diverse and capable group of people to consider engaging in the capacity that fits them best. This could mean inviting them into a particular role or laying a few options on the table. The danger is to type-cast and assume. Too often I hear stories of people only being invited into roles that match their profession. That isn’t fair. Maybe that is where they want to serve, but this is the challenge of the previous two bullets. Are we taking the easy route of only asking “teachers” to teach the VBS or LOGOS bible class? Or are we only inviting the musicians to be on the Worship Arts committee? The invitation can be daunting, but done well and in an invitational way it can be empowering, rewarding, and transformational (ironic, right?).

It sounds so simple but can be challenging. I am not good at this. I continue to wrestle and try to practice this. Living into this philosophy isn’t designed for one person – the pastor – to do alone. It takes the entire community, particularly those in leadership (all leadership, not just committee chairs or seated officers), to do this. Think of the power that comes from a session (let alone an entire congregation) noticing, lifting up, and celebrating a community’s gifts, talents, and abilities. Add to that the personal invitation into leadership and I think something special can happen. I suggest that, when done right, we get away from labels (youth elder, female deacon, etc.) and are flexible and empowering of everyone in the community. I hope you will join me in understanding our respective community’s needs, observing those around you, and extending the invitation to leadership.


Mathew Eardley works at Jitasa, a company in Boise, Idaho that provide accounting services to non-profit agencies. He is a graduate of Whitworth University and a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Boise. Mathew has served on committees at every level of PC(USA) including recently completing service as a member of the Way Forward Commission of the General Assembly.

Newton’s First Law of Motion and the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mick Hirsch

Nobody knows what to do with Newton. You see, Isaac tested not only the laws of physics – he also tested how far Christian orthodoxy could bend until it simply breaks. Today, most people think of Newton as a brilliant physicist, the guy who came up with the Three Laws of Motion that we all had to learn at some point during our educational journeys. But, back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, people didn’t know where to put him. If we’re honest, we all know how comforting it feels to label someone, to put them in a category, which we can either love, hate or discard as unimportant. This is what happened to Newton. The guy who discovered the Laws of Motion was put. And still today, among an itsy-bitsy group of historians and theologians who dabble in esoteric subjects, people are still arguing about where to put poor Isaac.

Let the name-calling begin: Newton’s a born-and-bred Anglican; no, he’s an antitrinitarian Arian heretic; impossible, he’s certainly somewhere between a Socinian and the Eastern Orthodox communion; seriously, let’s get real – he’s a deist; for God’s sake, it’s so obvious – he’s a latitudinarian-millinarian, duh!!! Oh, and we mustn’t forget… he’s one of the greatest physicists of all time.

We’re always looking for an easy way out, but if we think seriously about it, it’s really, really hard to put someone somewhere. Can you relate? Has it happened to you? It’s certainly happened to me, perhaps nowhere as intimately and personally challenging as the my own mercurial faith background. Like Isaac, I, too, have been called a lot of names and put in a lot of places.

Here’s the story: I was baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, just a year or two after my mom converted to Catholicism in order to marry my dad. But, by the time I was about two or three, my mom had had enough of Catholicism, and wanted to return to her Protestant roots. So, she took me to the “community church,” which happened to be American Baptist. Soon afterwards, my dad succumbed to some kind of Protestant temptation and followed along. It so happened, that by the time I entered junior high school, the Baptist youth group had diminished to a small handful of kids. So, the three of us abandoned ship and joined in with the Methodists. All fine and well, except for the fact that when my grandfather – my best friend – died during my sophomore year of high school, I was devastated. My “to be expected” teenage angst turned into a fierce atheism. With all apologies to any lawyers out there, it took working as a paralegal at a cutthroat Chicago law firm my year after college to reorient myself to a life of faith.

I felt something moving in my heart (John Wesley, referring to his own experience, said, “my heart was strangely warmed”). Coincidently, the only place I knew was the United Methodist Church (the one Wesley “founded”). So, I went there… and this time, I was pretty sure that my heart was strangely warmed. One Easter morning, I woke up and went to church. I knew all about Easter – the rabbit who lays chocolate covered eggs… cool. But, when the congregation belted out the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” well, I broke down in tears. It was an Isaiah 6:8 blast of what Methodists call “justifying grace” – the type of grace where God pardons and restores a person back to God. Before I could even think, there I was proclaiming, “Here I am. Send me!”

Bam! I entered Yale Divinity School on track to become ordained in the United Methodist Church (UMC). (By nature, I am curious – despite my affiliation with the UMC, I worked at a Congregational Church and completed my requisite internship at an Episcopal Church – once again, I was put… x 2.) Nevertheless, within the UMC, I felt on top of my game. I was young, clever, capable of entering the denomination from the inside, so that I could champion UMC-awesomeness, but also change some of the things with which I struggled about the Church.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself faced with a very difficult decision: either I take the vows to follow United Methodist doctrine, which would mean denying my LGBTQ friends the opportunity to profess their love for one another through marriage, as well as dissuading my LGBTQ friends from following their authentic call to ministry because they would be denied the same ordination I was about to receive. After many years of study, jumping through all the hoops, interviews, essays, paperwork, background checks, etc., etc. – I walked away. He who strived to be an insider now found himself an “outsider.”

But, that’s when I realized something monumental, something so very important, something incredibly powerful, life-giving, meaningful, purposeful… something real and inspired, all in one!

I was part of the laity.

Let’s go back to Newton. Our friend Isaac became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1667 at the age of 24 – the same age I was when I entered Yale Divinity School. Isaac was on the ordination track in the Anglican Church. Like me, he, too, walked away. There were things with which he didn’t agree in the Church, and he felt it impossible to commit to things about which he felt strongly.

Even more importantly, despite the fact that others immediately tried to put him into certain categories – heretic, anti-this & anti-that, etc. – he didn’t stay put. Rather, he discovered the laws of MOTION!

Think back: do you remember Newton’s First Law of Motion? “Every object persists in its state of rest (i.e., inertia) or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.”

I’m going to make an assumption: like me, you learned this First Law of Motion as a phenomenon of the science of physics. Well, I’m going to suggest something else: Newton’s First Law of Motion is equally a phenomenon of APOSTOLIC MISSION!

Christians – the ordained, yes, but even more so the laity (they are few, while we are many!) – Christians are, by definition, MOVED! When we open our hearts to God, God responds with a blast of grace, and that blast is the “force impressed on [you and me]!!!” That blast is God’s call to us to abandon the comforts of inertia – the comforts of “here” – and instead, pack up our faith, our hope, and our love, and go “there” – wherever “there” may be. For, there is always a need “there.” There is always a place, a people, a neighbor, someone who needs us “there.”
God’s grace fosters, nurtures and empowers us, every single member of the body, which, for Isaac, is another way of saying, “God moves us!” And, for Jesus our Savior, is another way of saying, “go and make disciples of all nations…”


Mick Hirsch is the President & Executive Director of THRIVE Gulu, a non-governmental organization that delivers mental health and psycho-social support services to survivors of the genocide in Northern Uganda and South Sudanese refugees displaced to Uganda.  He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, the Yale University Divinity School and the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. He has no particular denominational affiliation apart from the fact that he loves Episcopal liturgy, Orthodox iconography, United Methodist hymnody and Unitarian Universalist social justice.  

Eight Things Your Christian Educator Wants You to Know

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Virginia Callegary

Many churches employ a faith formation leader, Christian educator, or youth leader. Churches that do not have paid staff for education usually have volunteers who help keep the educational ministry of the church running. Whether paid or volunteer, the work of faith formation leader is never easy. Our voices are not magnified by the pulpit, or empowered with a vote. We are leaders in the church and yet we are not the leader of the church. Our job is expansive and vital but often undervalued, under-supported, and misunderstood.

As I was preparing to write this I asked fellow Christian educators to share one thing they would like the lay leadership of their church to know. The following are eight things that those of us involved in the ministry of faith formation want church leaders to know:

1. We can’t do it alone (and we shouldn’t have to).

Faith formation is too important to be left to one person. Clearly it’s not possible for us to be everywhere at once, though we really do try. Our work in the classrooms and youth rooms of the church is vital but our ministry shouldn’t be limited to those spaces. Teaching a class or providing childcare should not consistently keep us from attending worship, meetings, fellowship events, or mission opportunities. We need you to be the other adult in a room full of children, to provide mentorship to youth and young adults, and to share your vision for Christian education in the church.

2. Chances are that most church leaders are already involved in faith formation ministry.

If you volunteer for the church, attend fellowship events, participate in mission opportunities, and/or lift your voice in song and prayer in worship, you are already a part of the ministry of discipleship in your congregation. Why? Because we learn by doing, but that doing doesn’t usually happen alone. What better way to encourage children to follow Christ than to stand with them in worship and teach them by example how to thank and praise God with prayer, music, study, and service?

3. My job description sometimes feels overwhelming.

The work of a Christian educator is naturally ambiguous. At the end of our long list of duties and responsibilities you can usually find a bullet point that says “perform other duties as assigned.” If we’re doing our job correctly those other duties are usually “assigned by” us when we think of some new ministry we would like to try. Our job involves creativity and innovation, which usually results in a longer to-do list and more responsibilities.

4. Letting go of older programs is a reality and a necessity.

Coming up with new, creative, and innovative ideas takes time and energy. That time and energy has to come from somewhere. We should evaluate the things we put our time and energy into and let go of those that no longer work for the church or are disproportionately burdensome. This process is the key to discovering and embracing what is next for the church.

5. The congregation needs to hear from church leadership how important our ministry is.

Most people in the congregation know very little about what the role of faith formation leader entails. This is because a good amount of what we do is behind-the-scenes: preparation, organization, problem solving, etc. We need you to give us credit for the creative things that come about because of our dedicated ministry to the church. Yeah, we could toot our own horn but that feels unnatural.

6. Continuing education is very important to our ministry.

Continuing education provides time for rest and renewal, for reconnecting with the Spirit and rediscovering our call to educational ministry. Attending a continuing education conference provides even more opportunities for networking, brainstorming, and resource sharing. To make continuing education possible for us we need time off as well as a budget.

7. Yes, we know our office is a mess.

We try hard to work on it, we really do, but as soon as we get rid of one thing we somehow manage to acquire more things. Our offices are full of the many ministries we undertake in our leadership role. Instead of criticizing us, try being understanding, and maybe even offering to help. Please don’t be offended if we say no because, truth be told, we might like our office just the way it is.

8. We have been called to educational ministry.

We feel strongly about the importance of our role in the life and ministry of the church. Our job is challenging and can be thankless but we persevere because God has called us to love and serve the church in this particular way. This is not a step on the path to something else but a passion we have to walk alongside others on our shared spiritual journey.


Virginia Callegary is the Director of Christian Education and unofficial social media guru for First Presbyterian Church of Howard County in Columbia, Maryland. Her messy office helps her come up with new and creative ideas for nurturing the faith of children, youth, and adults. She is on the leadership council of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators and manages the social media presence of the organization.

Resisting Toxic Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katie Day

When I was asked to write about resisting and building immunity to toxic power, my first thought was, “I don’t know how.” After all, I participate daily in systems of toxic power as a white, heterosexual, cisgender middle class woman. Power and privilege have worked to my advantage more often than not, and while my participation in those systems is often unconscious, I cannot let myself off the hook and must acknowledge my complicity.

Power comes in many forms, in the world and in the church, and training officers to recognize and resist toxic power would benefit not just our sessions, but our neighborhoods, schools, and places of business.

When does power within the church become toxic? I’m sure if we were all in a room together talking about this, we would have as many opinions and definitions as there are voices. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define it like this: when power ceases to empower, equip, and liberate others and is used primarily to elevate the one or ones holding the power, to silence opposing voices, and to marginalize, undermine, or sow seeds of mistrust, it has become toxic. Toxic power can be seen within the church in individuals and groups who participate in unhealthy and unhelpful practices of control and domination, as well as in corporate participation in systems of oppression like white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.

For a scriptural example of what discerning toxic power might look like, consider Acts chapter 5, beginning in verse 12. The high priest at the Temple in Jerusalem was “filled with jealousy” (a clear indicator of toxicity) after witnessing the apostles healing the sick and converting new believers, and has the apostles arrested. The Pharisee Gamaliel spoke to the council these wise words:

“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. … I tell you … if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”

The high priest and his jealous rage did not prevail against the power of God at work in the early church. Toxic power is of human origin, born of jealousy, fear, hatred, complacency, or the idolatry of privilege and success. The power of God is still at work in the church, even today, and it is on that power that our leaders can always rely.

Toxic power will fail, in the end, but can and will cause a lot of harm before it fails. How might church leaders build up immunity to toxic power? Begin by creating awareness. We have to know there is a problem before we can start to work on it. Where do you see toxic power at play in your community?

And if you cannot see it, start researching and learning about the oppressive systems I’ve named above, seeking out resources and conversation partners from groups who are affected. Andrew’s initial post in this series comes into play here: church leaders will need to take a long, prayerful, and honest look at our congregations, without letting fear of failure cloud our vision. We confess in worship each week the ways we have failed to live into God’s calling, and failing to notice or to take action against toxic power in our community is part of that. Hiding our mistakes out of fear is not a healthy option.

When we create awareness of the problem of toxicity, when we can name it and learn about it, and discern where it exists in our congregation, we begin to build immunity to it. I am not a medical professional, but what I recall from high school science class is that immunity can comes after exposure to the harmful bacteria or virus; only after acknowledging our churches’ experiences with toxic power can we begin to resist it, trusting in the power of God that guides us, sustains us, redeems us, and calls us into new, healthy, non-toxic leadership practices.


Katie Day lives in Monterey, California, with her husband Kevin, son Elijah, dogs Lola and Mr. Wiggins, and cat Fred, and serves as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Monterey.

Treating Fear: Immunotherapy for Sessions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Kussmaul

I am not an allergist. I am not a shot-room nurse. I am an immunotherapy patient.

I am allergic to many things: dogs, cats, dust mites, molds, and a whole slew of grasses, trees, and pollens. I receive three injections per week: injections of the very things to which I am allergic. The hope is that, over time and with steady increases in the amount and concentration of serum, my immune system will adjust in a way that reduces the allergic response. I will still be allergic, but my allergies will not compromise my life and actions to the same degree.

So how does immunotherapy relate to governing bodies, particularly sessions?

When I think about the sessions with whom I have served and consulted, I see two shared traits: sessions, congregations and pastors are allergic to fear. Addressing this fear with principles from immunotherapy is effective in “treating” this allergy.

Fear, like my allergies, exists. Acknowledge its presence and impact.

  • Recognize symptoms: are we stuck, avoiding or side-stepping conversations, or continually postponing decisions? Symptoms of fear can present as a silent minority or as a silencing majority, they can be found in parking lot meetings, flurries of post-meeting emails, and in “people are saying” statements. Notice the symptoms.
  • Ask questions. “What are we not talking about?” “Whose voices are we not hearing?” “What other conversations are happening about _____?” “What is preventing us from taking action?” “Why does it feel like we are tip-toeing?”
  • Be direct: “Of what are we afraid?

Fear, like my allergies, can be identified. Be precise.

  • Identify the fears. There are probably more than one. Listing the fears provides clarity and facilitates movement. Listing the fears sparks conversation and feeds meaningful dialogue. The list becomes a starting place and a tool for reflection and assessment.
  • Be precise. It’s not enough to say “tree pollen.” We have to know if it is birch or cedar or pecan. It’s the same with an allergy to fear. It’s not enough to say “We are afraid of change.” Figure out the specifics. Drill down. Are we afraid of offending or disappointing someone? Afraid someone will leave? Afraid of taking a stand or being labeled the ______ church? Afraid we will decline beyond sustainability? Afraid of making a “bad” decision?

Fear, like my allergies, can be addressed. Take action.

  • Acknowledge the truth of inaction: there’s no such thing as “doing nothing” because “doing nothing” results in something. Gather information, discuss, discern, and do something. Action is almost always better than inaction. And when you discover a better way, simply regroup and head in that direction.
  • Speak for yourself. Practice, facilitate, and expect direct communication from others. Try “I am interested in your thoughts” when you hear “People are saying…” Or “To whom are you referring? I will speak with them directly.”
  • Agree on common language. Create a shared glossary (mental or actual) of words and phrases to explain the action, set expectations, and communicate the process. Be consistent. Establish an alternative narrative. Think about changing “We’ve always ______” to “In the past, we ____and now we ____.”

“Treating” fear, like my allergies, requires consistency and persistence.

  • Immunotherapy is most effective when you receive injections for three to five years. Even when ministry is busy or after reactions that require ice packs, hydrocortisone cream, and extra medicine. In those moments, I have to recall where I started, assess my improvement, celebrate my progress and remember: it takes time for an immune system to adjust how it reacts. It is the same with sessions, congregations, and pastors. “Treating” fear requires consistency and persistence. Even during Advent and Lent. Especially during times of heightened congregational anxiety.
  • Notice where you have responded to fear more effectively. Look at that original list of fears and celebrate the progress you are making. Embrace your role as pastor-encourager. Highlight success. Point to growth. Remember: it takes time for a session, congregation, or pastor to adjust how they respond to fear.

Fear, like my allergies, will never completely go away.

  • I will never be free of allergies. Particular seasons of the year will always be more challenging. While I hope I progress to the point of not needing daily medicine, I feel certain my medicine cabinet will always contain Zyrtec, Singular, and Benadryl for the times I need extra support.
  • There will always be particular topics about which sessions, congregations, and pastors will need extra support. This support may look like reconnecting with all or part of this process. It may look like inviting a colleague or consultant to watch, listen, and offer input. And it may be as simple as reading Scripture: Joshua 1:1-9, Psalm 27, Isaiah 41:1-20 & 43 or any of the countless occurrences of the phrase “Fear not!”

Last week was an easy immunotherapy week: no reaction. This week required an ice pack. This is the reality of immunotherapy. Treating allergies, whether dust-mites or fear, is a process. It takes time. And as my favorite shot-room nurse says, “Slow and steady wins the allergy race.”


Katherine Kussmaul is the pastor of St Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC and is a graduate of The Aquinas Institute of Theology, Duke Divinity School and The College of Wooster.

Holy Spirit, Is That You?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sam Hamilton-Poore

A most important responsibility for church leaders is learning how to notice the movement of the Holy Spirit, and then respond to the movement in ways that are faithful. Whenever we gather, we call upon Christ’s promise of the Spirit’s presence and guidance — we hope that our discussion and decisions will be Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. But how do we recognize when it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit that is moving us, guiding us?

I’ve found help for this question in the words about the Holy Spirit from the Gospel of John and the letter of 1st John.1 Again and again we’re told in the Johannine witness that the Holy Spirit is inextricably linked to Jesus Christ, and links us to him. The Spirit is Jesus’ emissary, we’re told, who will bring to mind all that Jesus has said and done (John 14:25-26). The Spirit is our counselor, who advocates on behalf of Jesus and enables us to testify to him (John 15:26). Different spirits exist, not all of which may be holy — therefore all spirits must be tested (1 John 4:1); and the standard or norm by which the various spirits are tested is Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh (1 John 4:2). The Spirit is often manifested in an inner experience by which we recognize Jesus or God (1 John 3:24). And an essential mark of being grounded in God by the Holy Spirit is a sense of confidence toward God as a response to God’s love (1 John 4:16b-17).

As I understand these words from John and 1st John, this means that whenever or however we perceive that our thoughts our actions are being drawn closer to the pattern of the life, death, resurrection, and power of Christ, we are in fact being moved by the Holy Spirit. It’s not simply a matter of how I may feel about something, or any surge of enthusiasm for a particular decision — but whether we are being drawn more closely to the person and work of Christ himself. If our discernment is leading us into ways of being that more clearly reflect Christ, the Word Made Flesh, then this discernment is being guided by the promised Holy Spirit.

It may be worthwhile to ask ourselves something like this: How does this decision (or ministry or activity or expenditure) reflect Christ? How does what we do as a church and as Christians embody the ministry of Christ—the Word Made Flesh—in our community and world? Yes, whether it’s Session or committees, there are usually a wide variety of things to be considered—from boilers to by-laws. But at heart, we gather to try to discern the will of Christ for our congregations and community — and such discernment requires attention to the movement of the Spirit. And this Spirit, more than anything, wants to connect us more firmly to Christ himself: his life, his witness, his power, his justice, his compassion.

May you perceive and follow the Spirit throughout your life and service to the church — the Spirit that links us inextricably to the Risen Christ among us!

1My thanks to Elizabeth Liebert and her wonderful book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Westminster John Knox 2008) for calling my attention to this. See pp. 14-15.


The Rev. Dr. Sam Hamilton-Poore is a Presbyterian minister and spiritual director who has served congregations in North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He is also author of “Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation,” and the former Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

The CCC: Churches, Communities, and Challenges

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lee Nave, Jr.

By design, churches serve to enhance the communities they reside within.

During some of the most challenging times in recent human history, church leaders have worked within communities as leaders. These challenges, in some cases, were large in scope (civil rights movement), with implications on how certain populations within the community were treated.

Not every church can march on Washington but every church leader can support their community on Main Street. Church leaders are not just leaders of their church community but also the larger community that they reside in.

When I was eight, I had my first job cutting grass with my grandparents for members of our church one summer. My grandparents and I would drive around all day that summer, cutting the lawns for older church members who didn’t have anyone to do it for them for various reasons.

In order to increase our outreach, we worked our pastor to outline members of the congregation who may need assistance. Our pastor would give my grandparents a list with contact information of those in need. This list began to expand to include community members that were not a part of the church community.

This grassroots kind of community service, though small in scope, can play a massive role in how churches engage the community they serve. Using resources from church members, such in this case landscaping, can assist the lives of one of the churches’ most vulnerable communities.

1. Know your limitations/capacity/community as a church leader.

Churches, however, can’t be in charge of solving every issue that impacts the community. There is only so much a church can do considering their limited capacity (funding, time, volunteers, etc). And a second point is that churches can’t create a platform or action plan without community input.

A common disadvantage of international development is that organizations enter communities without assessing community wants and needs before starting a program. Therefore, churches have to assess directly from the community to discover what needs are and work with the community to create an action plan.

2. Capture the voices of community members.

Now, as a professional in the nonprofit space 20 years later, one of the most valuable methods of collecting community input I’ve seen and done myself is through focus groups. These small group conversations can be tailored around specific topics or just general community outreach.

Focus groups could be conducted in spaces that church members feel most comfortable in. However, there also needs to be spaces for those not as comfortable with church environments to still participate in such discussions. Recreation centers and other spaces could serve for those audiences. Especially when dealing with young people who may not feel as comfortable using their voice in this particular space.

3. Put actions into… well… action!

The action plan itself would be based off of the feedback gathered. For the focus groups to be successful and useful, they need to go beyond just the harms and problems within the community but also contain recommendations and actions a church could take.

For example, if forty community members need assistance with landscaping, there needs to be a plan on how those services will be rendered. It could involve asking a local landscaping company for discounted rates or a few motivated teenagers could be asked to deliver services like I did with my grandparents 20 years ago.

One of the most troubling results of having community discussions such as focus groups, is when participants feel like nothing has come from it. As much as possible, try to inform participants of all actions taken as well as engage them in the process.

As you continue to grow as a church leader, remember that the voices of the people you break bread with should all be valued and understood fully. Your work isn’t just to lead the church but to be a community organizer who harnesses the voices of community, to defeat all challenges.


Lee Nave Jr. is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Citizens for Juvenile Justice. He has over a decade of experience working with communities all over the country in the nonprofit space. He currently resides in Boston, MA.

Exegeting Culture for Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Melodie Jones-Pointon

I first felt the call to professional ministry in the church when I was 21 years old. At the time, I made a “deal” with God: I would go anywhere God called (almost). I imagined this deal with God would lead me to ministry in Hawaii. But that has not yet been the case. So far, my calls have led me from my hometown in Idaho to Washington State, from Arkansas to New Jersey, from Michigan to Mississippi. Currently I call Lincoln, Nebraska my home.

In the Presbyterian call system, church professionals are often called far from home to lead in congregations and communities that have unique cultures. Discovering those cultures and naming them help us navigate those cultures in ways that make our leadership connected and effective.

Here are three insights I have gleaned over the years:1

If you want to know how something really functions, ask the custodian. Okay, so my current church has a professional cleaning company, so this doesn’t always work. I would happily insert the office manager, administrative assistant, or maintenance/security personnel in this spot. The larger point is that oftentimes the pastor and leadership aren’t around for some of the important happenings at the church.

Here’s the truth – as the senior pastor, I love to rattle off the list of things we support and believe in at the church. I am proud that we currently are a meeting site for AA and Girl Scouts, non-profit board meetings and senior citizen groups. I read the calendar every week and am thrilled at how we are growing into using our building better. It’s my job to look at the big picture.

But I don’t always know what is really happening. I recently learned that our new AA meeting is growing quickly in number and that our food pantry is hosting their first volunteer staff and client picnic where they anticipate at least 40 people. I learned this because our office manager brought up details for set up at a staff meeting so she could pass these details on to our maintenance staff.

Sometimes the most important conversations and decisions are made outside of the committee meeting. I learned this in my second call, in a small town in Mississippi. I found myself frustrated that I would sit at committee meetings where items were discussed, decisions made, and then changed later in the week.

I started paying attention, and discovered that the most important discussions in the community took place at the ball field and the grocery store parking lot. That particular congregation and community was (and is) relationship-driven. So they couldn’t make decisions without those conversations. In other areas of the country, the Catholic or Lutheran church has been a large community influence, and committees would never make a decision outside of a meeting with a pastor present. These are issues of culture and influence that affect how we lead.

Cultures aren’t “one-size fits all.” I am often asked how I like my current call and current city. The truth is, I love it. And I know why. It’s a growing larger-sized farming community with an emphasis on higher education. It is very similar to my home congregation and community. I’m comfortable here because I understand the culture.

But it’s just a culture. There’s no one ultimate right or wrong way to run a church. In today’s culture of change, it’s important for us to focus on the vision and mission of our congregation and community. As new people move into the community, they bring different experiences and ideas that are valuable. Don’t let the established culture run them off! Pay attention to it, be able to name it, and learn to either work within it (if it works) or change it (if it’s toxic).

For further reading and reference, see the works of Eric H.F. Law, Nancy Tatom Ammerman, and Israel Galindo.

1 These are in chronological order of discovery, not in order of importance.


Growing up in Idaho, Melodie has always had a great love for Christ and for the church. Melodie received her Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Seminary in May 2017 and has served at Presbyterian churches in Idaho, Washington State, Arkansas, New Jersey, Michigan, Mississippi, and finally here in Nebraska! Her pastor husband, Steve, is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and together they have two children, Phoebe and Eli, and a 4-legged friend named Pebbles.

Communities of Interpretation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robert Williamson Jr.

When it comes to officer training, I imagine reading the Bible is pretty far down the list of tasks most of us consider urgent. There are issues that seem more pressing, like understanding our polity, or evangelism and church growth, or balancing the budget. Besides, we often think of pastors as the only “legitimate” interpreters of the Bible, leaving church officers and members to tend to other, more practical matters.

Yet the stories of the Bible are foundational to everything else we do. The Bible teaches us the language of the faith. It shows us how to be the people of God, living in the world and yet refusing to be conformed to it. It exposes false narratives that would keep us enthralled to Pharaoh. It declares the good news of resurrection life made possible in Jesus Christ, who came to let the oppressed go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, the Bible reminds us who — and whose — we are.

As such, immersion in the Bible is imperative for the life of faith. Without it, we cannot know what it means to be the church. We cannot understand the greater purpose that animates our polity, our budgets, our worship life, and our participation in God’s mission. We — all of us — need to become interpreters of the Bible.

All of Us Together

Our church structures can communicate that interpreting scripture is a task reserved for pastors and scholars. Too often, we hear the Bible read and proclaimed from the pulpit for 20 minutes on Sunday and scarcely think about it the rest of the week. But, properly understood, biblical interpretation is the work of the whole community, permeating our life together. We all have something to contribute and something to learn. While pastors and scholars have specialized knowledge that can illuminate the Bible in certain ways, each of us has our own experiences, insights, and questions that can enrich our common reading of the Bible in other ways. We read better when we read together.

In my work with Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a 1001 New Worshipping Community whose members are mostly homeless, we engage together in Bible studies that invite that insights and experience of every reader in the room. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour reading the week’s lectionary passage. We read slowly, paying attention to the details of the text, asking whatever questions occur to us, and finding the places where the text connects to our own experience. We open it up and walk around inside it just to see what we might see.

For instance, one afternoon we studied the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac as told in Mark 5:1-20. As a biblical scholar, I wanted to focus on the political implications of the demons calling themselves “Legion,” a term for a Roman military cohort. My Mercy friends, by contrast, related personally to the demon-possessed man. They understood what it was like to be inhabited by demons, though theirs had names like “Addiction,” “Depression,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” They understood what it felt like to be cast out of society and left to wander among the tombs.

Reading the story together helped us all to understand it—and each other—more deeply. I came to know more about what it’s like to struggle with demons. I even came to identify some of the demons that animate me in destructive ways — demons with names like Comfort, Success, and Prestige. In turn, my Mercy friends thought more about how their demons may themselves be manifestations of the political and economic structures of our time.

More than that, reading the Bible together helped us imagine what it means to be the church together. Like the Gerasenes, we have too often been taught to marginalize, shackle, and abandon those who struggle with their demons. Yet Jesus immediately set the man free, despite the protests of those in the community who were more concerned for their financial well-being than for the man’s restoration to wholeness. Like Jesus, we decided, the church should show compassion for the marginalized, even if it means being banished by those invested in the status quo.

But my Mercy friends saw something else in the passage that I had missed. They recognized that Jesus refused the newly-healed man’s request to follow him, instead sending him off to proclaim the good news among his own people. They suggested that those who have “been down through it” and have come out the other side have a special mission. As the healed man could proclaim the Gospel in a region where Jesus could not go, so too could my homeless friends witness to the good news in places and among people who would not listen to someone like me.

Becoming Communities of Interpretation

I tell this story simply to say this: reading the Bible with each other can change us for the better. It can help us see the world differently. It can help us to understand ourselves differently. It can shape us more fully into the people of God, bearing witness to resurrection life in a world too often shrouded by the shadow of death.

As church leaders — whether pastors, scholars, ruling elders, or deacons — we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be immersed in the world of scripture on a regular basis. We need to find ways of reading the Bible together, letting the words of Scripture shape our sense of ourselves and our conception of what it means to be the church. As communities of faith, we need to live in the stories of the Bible, and we need the stories of the Bible to live in us.


Robert Williamson Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multi-denominational worshiping community welcoming all people, especially those who live on the streets. His latest book is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).