A Space for Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rachel Cheney

This year during Youth Sunday, a sixteen-year-old girl stood in the pulpit. She was barely visible, given her small stature. From my view in the choir loft, I could see her knees trembling. Getting her up there was a challenge, but now she stood before our congregation and shared about her struggle with mental health issues. I watched the faces of the people in the pews; many nodded their heads in agreement, others looked surprised at her openness. “Anxiety is a relevant and personal battle many of us face,” she said passionately. “We need to start talking about it in the church.”

The days that followed brought a flood of emails and calls from congregants who heard her message and wanted to express their own struggles with mental health. Her boldness opened up new possibilities for conversation in our church. It took courage and honesty on her part, but it also required that the church make room for her young voice to be heard.

One of the most impactful ideas from the NEXT Church National Gathering centered around the importance of giving our youth space to share their stories. In a workshop designed specifically for youth ministers and leaders, Shelley Donaldson led a candid conversation on the obstacles and gifts of doing youth ministry today. While the first part of the workshop was devoted to time for us to bond over our shared failures and frustrations, the latter half was spent thinking about ways to integrate youth ministry into the broader church. Too often, it seems that our youth programs are sequestered from the congregation. This only fosters the harmful idea that youth are not interested in church, and even worse: that the church is not interested in our youth.

Even though we did not arrive at any earth-shattering solutions for this problem, I left with a simple but profound insight: the church belongs to the youth today. It often seems that we are waiting for our young people to grow up, go to college, spend a decade absent, and then come back to church when they have a couple of kids. Instead, the church belongs to them exactly as they are today. It belongs to our sixth graders who exclusively ask unrelated questions, our eighth graders who feel endless pressure to fit in, and our seniors who want to act grown up but still love playing dodgeball.

When we listen to the voices of our youth, we communicate to them that they are a valuable and essential part of the church. Our congregations should be guided by the stories and ideas of our young people. Though this is impossible when our youth are rarely involved in our services. By creating an inclusive environment for our youth, we meet them wherever they are in their story.

I left the NEXT Church National Gathering committed to lifting up the voices of our young people, hearing and sharing their stories, and looking for opportunities for the church to grow towards them during their faith journey. This past Sunday, thirteen eight graders stood in front of the congregation. Each of them begged me not to make them share first. But, despite their trepidation, each one gave a part of their faith statement. It was a holy moment. Going forward I hope we can keep creating places for the stories of our young people.


Rachel Cheney is a Youth Director in North Carolina who is passionate about ministry with students, healthy living, and outdoor adventures.

The Energy to Keep Going

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by David Norse Thomas

“This all sounds great, but I have to ask: how much were you working each week to make this happen?” This honest question, asked in the workshop I was co-leading on intergenerational ministry, was one that I wasn’t quite ready for.

As a church revitalizer of a small, older congregation in suburban Baltimore, I’ll be honest: I work long weeks. There are months where I’m focused on how to keep a sixty-year-old church building going, looking at how to save money so we can reduce our deficit, and rearranging our pews so our handful of children have enough space to play, while also being accessible to our deaf folks and our ASL interpreter, and folks adjusting to reduced mobility and walkers. It’s the important work of hospitality and leading a small congregation, and while it can be life-giving, there are moments that make my soul sing: visiting with folks in their nineties as they ponder what they want their legacy to be to the next generation of progressive Christians; meeting with someone who hasn’t been in church in decades, but who encountered Jesus anew in worship and wants to get involved; training leaders in community organizing so that we can partner with the Holy Spirit as they move the world from how it is to a little closer to how it should be. The two kinds of long days are interconnected, interwoven; the one not possible without the other.

When I arrived at Maryland Presbyterian Church, I knew that I was going to need practices that empower and energize me. Each week, I set time aside to meet with folks, both within and outside of our congregation, for relational meetings; 30-45 minutes where I ask about what keeps folks up at night, and what gets them out of bed the next morning to do something about it. I also share what kindles the embers within me, to keep going. This has set all of what I do, even the seemingly mundane, aflame with the holy fire that set the galaxy’s spinning.

I worked a lot the first year in my call, knowing that I had to lay the groundwork. Now though, I’m at a place where I take Tuesdays and Saturdays off to hike and practice Sabbath. But I also make time to do the work that gives me the energy to keep going.

The NEXT Church National Gathering is part of what keeps me going. I work a lot, but I also try to work on what gives me, and my congregation, life. I never thought that life was a fourty-hour-a-week gig. Instead of thinking of work-life balance, I think about being centered on being a disciple. That weaves me into a story, and an energy, that gets me through plumbing problems and deficits. I hope that this month’s blog ignites similar fires within you as well.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Carefronting as True Allyship

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Karen Hernández-Granzen

Karen and Amantha’s workshop

I appreciated being invited for the first time to a NEXT Church National Gathering. I felt privileged to co-lead a workshop with my new Amiga/Colega Amantha Barbee. We met at the PCUSA General Assembly in St. Louis when each of us received the Women of Faith Award. Our workshop gave us both the opportunity to share how our churches are seeking justice, loving mercy, and working humbly before our God (Micah 6:8). I was inspired by what she and our participants are doing to respond to that call. I enjoyed every worship service. I was feed spiritually through the preachers, worship leaders, and music. The diversity of music and worship styles effectively reflected the diversity of the participants. I was moved to tears of gratitude, joy, grief, and laughter!

During what I would like to call the “Holy Times” separated for People of Color to gather separately in a safe space for mutual support via dialoging and debriefing, I appreciated witnessing us implement a Latinx idiom: “Hablar sin pelo en la boca.”/ Speak without hair in your mouth. Another way of stating this Latinx idiom is: “Hablar sin pelo en la lengua.” Speak without hair on your tongue. Basically, what it means is don’t swallow your voice. Instead speak immediately in order to communicate any questions, concerns, offenses.

I would encourage the planners of future NEXT Church National Gatherings to make this “Holy Time” for People of Color to gather together separately a new tradition. I would also suggest that during this time the group consider adopting the norm of “carefronting.”

David Augsburger coined this term over 30 years ago in his book, Caring Enough to Confront.

Carefronting takes a different approach to managing conflict. In carefronting, the overall goal is to attain and maintain effective, productive working relationships. Carefronting is a method of communication that entails caring enough about one’s self, one’s goals, and others to confront conflict courageously in a self-asserting, responsible manner.

In a future Next Church Conference, I would also love to be a part of an open and honest dialogue with People of Color and Euro-Americans to discuss what true allyship means as stated below, and how PCUSA can intentional develop more allies for People of Color within our denomination.

ALLYSHIP1
an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group

  • allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people
  • allyship is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with
    • it is important to be intentional in how we frame the work we do,
      i.e. we are showing support for…, we are showing our commitment to ending [a system of oppression] by…, we are using our privilege to help by…

1https://theantioppressionnetwork.com/allyship/


Rev. Karen Hernández-Granzen has passionately served as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Trenton, New Jersey for over two decades. As the co-leader of the Arts, Music and Culture Committee of the City of Trenton, she is seeking to ensure that creative ways are used to celebrate the history of the city and educate. As a commissioner of Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission, she is seeking to ensure that issues negatively impacting residents are addressed.

Sources of New Life

by David Norse Thomas

Church conferences can be, lets face it, weird. Long exhausting days can overwhelm me with an even worse sense of imposters syndrome than my first few weeks of seminary. Sometimes I leave with a nagging feeling that maybe this was the year I should have organized a reading retreat with my friends with my continuing education funds instead. But this year, at the NEXT Church National Gathering, I had a uniquely different experience, and I’m not the only one. This month the NEXT Church blog will share the stories and insights of pastors who attended in person and virtually, and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church.

This year, the gathering was in Seattle, and as a child of the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t just the weather and the mountains that made me feel at home. For three days, I found myself engaging in the conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing from speakers doing the work that I see Jesus’ resurrection made visible in. This was a year full of honesty, tackling the ways in which we can be woven together too tightly without room for the people God is calling into our communities, speaking prophetic words about how we need to shift from constructs of racial reconciliation to repairing relationships and seeking reparations alongside our Black siblings, poetry that spoke to the power of being honest about how difficult the work of the Church can be, and where new life is showing up.

For me, one of the most powerful experiences was a workshop on utilizing design thinking in our congregations. Design thinking centers the experience of people and pushes us to creatively utilize the resources we have, instead of mourning what we lack. It is a powerful tool for opening leaders to new possibilities that God might be calling us to risk trying. In the workshop, we utilized the “Mission: Possible” game, and I took away two surprising paradoxical lessons from this experience. First, being encouraged to look at the resources we were given in the game (in the form of resource cards) set my imagination, and those of my table mates, to be creative with the skills and experiences we have. It seems so simple to start with the gifts God has given us in our congregations, but I realized that we so often start with what we lack, instead of giving thanks for God’s provision.

The other surprise came when our facilitators set firm time limits on our planning. Knowing that we had to make a decision freed us up to be more experimental, and to focus. This rang true personally for me. In my context at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD, we have a firm deadline for when we have to become financially stable as a congregation, or begin to consider options like calling a part-time pastor, seeking to merge with another congregation, or consider selling our building. This deadline has unleashed unimaginable creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to risk failing that we would not have had otherwise. We have to act, and while we need to discern, decisions have to be made.

I returned from the NEXT Church National Gathering excited, ready to start from a place of gratitude and creativity, and I look forward to attending next year with more stories to tell. I ordered Mission: Possible for our next session meeting, and I am excited to see what our creative, motivated ruling elders dream up.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Editor’s note: We invite you to dig more deeply into two of the stage presentations David references by watching the video recordings and engaging with the provided reflection questions: