Choirs and Serpents and Doves

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Carlton David Johnson

An emergency Friday evening meeting at the church troubled my parent’s hearts. The mandatory gathering gave me heartburn. It was Friday night, the weekend of my 28th birthday, and there were parties to go to.

The pastor who was also a chaplain for the United States Army, had been deployed to Operation Desert Storm. He would be leaving in less than a week and there were leadership appointments needed in his absence.

It was the first time the pastor was going to be away and he picked a woman, a brilliant young DMin student to lead a Baptist congregation that had never had a female minister. The congregation was immediately at war.

There was one thing they agreed on; I would be leading the music ministry. I was their musical Boy Wonder whose gifts they had nurtured for over 20 years. There was the chance, I thought, that I could fix this problem over the next few weeks by producing soothing melodies from our stellar choir. After all, these same impressive salves had eased the pain in smaller past upheavals.

It was not to be so. And the shipwreck would be my fault.

I came to the task with years…ok decades…of pinned up awareness of problems within our church. The small church had produced award winning musicians and singers. The choir was replete with prima donnas and divas. Over half of them belonged to the same (very talented) family. The most talented was my closest friend.

In the past, she helped me with matters within our church and in other ministries where I served. Surely, she would continue giving unbiased feedback…right? No.

In our haste, I managed to offend her and her entire family within a week. The ugliness grew from a two-sided war to a battle royal. As an example, since our church followed the older tradition of deacons leading “Devotion”, a half hour of prayer and long-metered hymns at the start of worship, choir members routinely arrived after the official start time of worship to avoid participating. For many, the tradition was dated and needed to be discontinued. The solution would have included reducing the time of the deacon’s devotion as well as challenging choir members to be in the choir loft at the start of worship. But remember these folks were all related and even those outside of family bonds had known each other for decades. Oh, did I tell you that the leader of the pack was my best friend’s mother who also acted as something of a second mother to me? Yeah, that part.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a request from the (temporary) pastor that the newly formed teen choir be assigned a Sunday each month to participate in worship. Sounded simple enough. Unfortunately, my bestie had identified the teen choir as a “group” (rather than a choir) that she was developing for the big stage, not Sunday morning services. And she was not budging. Neither was the temporary pastor.

Thankfully, word came that the pastor would be back within two weeks.

My final two Sundays were marked with an almost empty choir loft. I was humble enough (humiliated enough?) to contact my bestie and her mother to let them know that I was conceding “informal leadership” to them for the rest of our pastor’s absence and I would remain available to them. An important relationship was restored.

Upon his return, the pastor immediately contacted me to apologize for leaving me with “such a mess”. I also apologized for my haste. He guided me to the writer of Matthew’s counsel that would stay with me for the rest of my work in music ministry and even now in leadership in the larger church. That advice is to always “be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove” (Matthew 10:16). I left that experience understanding “spirit-led worship”. The ultimate goal is not a splendid experience, but God’s glory. It was a lesson in the efficacy of prayer and patience.

Carlton David Johnson is an associate minister at the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, GA where he leads the Ujima Men’s Fellowship, Kijana Boys Rites of Passage, Fawohodie Ministry to the Incarcerated and their families and serves in music ministry. He is a board member of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church Community Development Corporation, the Presbyterian Pastoral Care Network and NEXT CHURCH (Strategic Planning Team). He is a regular contributor to the Presbyterian Outlook monthly magazine. Carlton recently began serving as the Associate for Vital Congregations for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Carlton and his wife Cara split their time between Atlanta, GA and Louisville, KY

Stuck in the Snow and Rescued by Unexpected Angel

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Lane Brubaker

Every Saturday evening I lead worship at Hagar’s Community Church, a new worshipping community planted inside the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW)- which is the largest women’s prison in the state of Washington and the only women’s prison with Maximum and Medium custody. The mission of Hagar’s Community Church is to be a Sanctuary for God’s Beloved Exiles at the WCCW and to proclaim the Gospel truth that God indeed loves, without measure, every individual incarcerated at the WCCW.  I love my congregation and feel privileged every Saturday to have the honor of serving this congregation.  

Most Sunday mornings I am itinerating around the state of Washington preaching and teaching at churches throughout our Presbytery and beyond about what God is up to in the walls of a prison. I’m out and about doing this work to share all of the inspirational stories from Hagar’s Community Church. I’m also out and about securing missional and financial partners who will support this new worshipping community. The reality is, because of its context Hagar’s Community Church will never be able to sustain itself the way a typical congregation does. Not only do my congregants make $.42 an hour, but it is also illegal for them to fund a prison program. Therefore, finding long term missional partners is key to our sustainability. It has been a joyful experience to witness all the people and congregations coming together to support Hagar’s Community Church.  

Because I’m so excited to find more missional partners for Hagar’s Community Church (and because I often think I can make it through anything) I had a critical lapse in judgement a couple weeks ago. A piece of background information about me- I grew up in Cleveland, TN (where it never snows) and I spent the last 8 years of my life in New Orleans (which is both flat and never has any snow). So moving to Washington State has brought me to a new place with vast mountains and weather patterns to which I am not accustomed.  

A Church in our Presbytery asked me to preach and talk about Hagar’s Community Church on a Sunday in January. This church is on Mount Rainer, but I didn’t think about how elevation changes things. I scheduled it, and . . . I thought nothing of it. The week I was scheduled to preach there were rumors of snow . . .  Again, I assumed it would be fine. The night before I looked at my weather app and saw snow . . . and of course, assumed I could get through it. I decided to give myself extra time, but saw no reason to cancel.  

I woke up early that Sunday morning, I plugged in the address is my GPS.  I headed on my way listening to my favorite podcast: Armchair Expert. Everything was fine for the majority of the trip- no problem . . . 

Then I was about 30 miles away . . . and I noticed it was snowing . . . and the snow was sticking to the roads.  

I started driving more carefully.  

I’m about 20 miles away . . . I make the turn my GPS suggests and start climbing up . . .

 I drive a mile or so . . .

The snow is getting deeper, deeper, deeper.  

I begin wondering “How I’m going to make it through this?”

For some reason I keep going . . . thinking “I made it this far, I can’t turn back now!  

Beginning to worry, I think “maybe I should have asked what the best route was to this church”

And then . . . 

My car was no longer moving forward.  I. was. stuck. 

I was stuck on a country snowy mountain road . . . I felt as alone as I have ever been. Suddenly visions from the movie Into the Wild came flashing into my mind: dying, stranded by myself . . . I turned to my phone and of course, I had no signal to make a phone call . . .

I realized in that moment, I was completely unprepared. I was not wearing clothes for a hike in the snow, I didn’t have shovel to dig myself out, and I had no way of contacting anyone for help.  

Panic. Set. In.   

What felt like a lifetime passed by . . . 

In reality it was more like 5 min – when I saw a large pickup truck towing snow mobiles climbing the road. I got out of the car and signaled that I needed help, as they got closer I saw multiple Trump 2020 stickers . . .

I began to panic again.  

But to my relief, two extremely polite men jumped out of the car and immediately knew what to do. They didn’t ask questions (like what possessed you to drive on this road?) they just helped me get my car unstuck, turned around, and gave me direction to get me safely back home.  

I thanked God for them every minute of the drive home.  

This was a morning of many failures. I never made it to the church where I was scheduled to preach. Luckily, they had a backup plan due to the poor weather conditions. I failed to know my own limits. I had fooled myself into thinking if I set my mind to something I could accomplish the task at hand. But in reality I have had no life experience to help me navigate these roads in the snow. And though I work in a prison and make it my task every week to offer grace, and love to all people no matter what is in their background, I made assumptions about the angels who rescued me because of a political sticker.  

Thank God I am not still sitting on the side of Mount Rainer in the snow, thank God for the angels sent to teach me about the log in my own eye, and thank God that I’m able to learn the lessons from a failed Sunday morning. 

Rev Lane Brubaker is the pastor of Hagar’s Community Church a 1001 New Worshipping Community planted inside the WCCW. Before moving to Washington Lane lived in New Orleans where she served as the YAV site coordinator and co founded The Okra with her husband Rev Crawford Brubaker.

Getting It Right Sometimes Takes a Few Tries. And That’s Okay.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Cindy Correll

You will make mistakes.

These words catapulted from the recesses of my mind on the regular that first year I served in Haiti. Maria Arroyo at the time was coordinator of the Caribbean and Latin America for World Mission. As I left orientation and headed to Haiti, she made sure I knew that my first year in mission service was for listening.

And messing up.

Looking back as I enter into my eighth year of this amazing life, I realize that Maria’s words were more than a warning. They were a declaration of dependence.

Just what I needed. As a recovering journalist, I’d spent that first career doing everything I could to get things right. Errors were blackmarks and hurtful. Perfection might be a stretch and unattainable, but it was the goal in every story and edition. Anything less stung. And it often hung around like an albatross.

I spent my first full month in country with a rural family. My job was to learn Haitian Creole and customs. Each day, a member of the family took me around the community and countryside

One morning after a full night’s rain I walked with Widline, who was taking off precious time studying for medical school entrance exams.

“Fè atansyon,” she said in a warning tone.

As I turned to ask what that meant, my foot hit the thick mud on the lane.

Down I went. Widline rushed to help me up, and I had to ask.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

“What does fè atansyon mean?”

“It means be careful.”

You know I’ll never forget that phrase.

I stumbled along through the months and years of my first term in Haiti making many mistakes, learning valuable lessons from most, and unfortunately, repeating a few.

I made small mistakes and big ones.

I learned lessons and language.

I was hurt, and I hurt others.

You will make mistakes.

Those words. They set me on a path to understand that it’s hard to have hits and runs if you don’t have errors.

What I learned from all my many mistakes – and the ease at which I could absorb their lessons and let them go – was that I didn’t have time to soak in the juices of all I’d gotten wrong. My role as a mission co-worker was to accompany those on the margins. That meant giving them my whole heart and attention.

On Jan. 12, I was in a small church in rural Virginia leading worship. It was my first time putting together the order of worship. I was intimidated and eager to get it all right.

The sermon was well received, and I declared that next we would affirm what we believe by reciting the Apostle’s Creed. And my mind went blank. The people in the pews looked at me, and I had nothing.

“It appears I have not memorized the words of …”
“It’s on Page 14,” at least seven people gently responded.

I turned to the page and read along.

I’d messed up.

And it was all good.

Mistakes are the holy stone in the shoe of perfection.

Mistakes pierce the ego that says, “I must get this right,” and offers the assurance that we all are in this together.

Big and small, forgivable and painful for years, mistakes are going to happen. Our best hope is to prepare and do our best.

And our best reality is that, especially in this work of ministry, how lovely that we can depend on others to gently, kindly guide us back on track.

Cindy Corell is a mission co-worker serving in Haiti. She is in Virginia now waiting for the political unrest in Haiti to settle down. She has served in Haiti with Presbyterian Hunger Program and its Joining Hands network in Haiti, FONDAMA. She can be reached at


Children’s Ministry, Failure, and Why Sometimes It’s Okay to Bail

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Ashley Detar Birt

Now, remember, Steven, if you run into any trouble out there, you can always bail. There’s never any shame in bailing.”- Greg Universe

The quote above comes from Steven Universe, a children’s cartoon that often promotes messages about healthy emotions and decision making to children and adults alike. It comes from Greg Universe, father of the title character, right before his son attempts something that is both very exciting and unlikely to work. Although his words are few, his message is profound: sometimes, even when we don’t feel like we should, it’s okay to stop. It can be better to abandon the plan than to try and force yourself into something that you know just isn’t going to be worth it.

I cannot think of a better lesson to apply to children’s ministry.

In my time doing children’s ministry, I have learned to come up with back up plans. Always have modifications to your activities. Always check supplies. Always test crafts and projects before doing them with kids.

None of those things helped when it came to Vacation Bible School this year.

Imagine: a week full of songs and games and Bible stories, all accompanied by little crafts and experiments to help illustrate the lessons in tangible ways. There were supposed to be robots! We were supposed to make slime! There were supposed to be happy, laughing children! It would be glorious!

It started with balloons. The experiment was simple enough: you blew up a balloon, you taped a straw to it, you put a string through the straw, and you let the air out of the balloon. In theory, it was supposed to race down the string. In reality, it was me, surrounded with colored latex scraps, covered in scotch tape, handing supplies to teachers with a “it might work?” I told myself that it was an experiment, and sometimes experiments fail. It would be a good lesson for the kids.

Next came the robots. This would be easier: tape some markers, a battery, and a motor to a cup, connect the battery to the motor, watch it wiggle all over some paper. Although it took thirty minutes to set up the motor, I knew it’d be worth it to watch the robot doodle. Except, when I got it running, it…didn’t doodle. It didn’t move at all. It just vibrated in place, and that wasn’t even strong enough to make it move. Rather than an abstract masterpiece, I ended up with hours wasted and marker bleeding through the paper onto my desk. When they arrived, I gave the project to one of the teachers to let her figure it out. We ended up having the kids color.

On the last day we were supposed to have our masterpiece: slime in a bottle. I practiced making this at my desk, and it worked beautifully! I had finally gotten something right! Then, it came time to prepare it for the kids. I have no idea how I messed up, but I knew my food coloring stained fingers and bottles full of pale green syrup were all I need to call it. It was time to bail.

Disappointed in my week and in myself, I told the teachers they could try if they wanted, but they didn’t have to do that activity. Some chose to, some didn’t. I felt like I had let everybody down by not trying harder to get things to work. As I checked in on classes, frustrated and exhausted, I noticed something. None of the kids were frustrated. None of them even noticed anything was missing. They were all having a great time learning about God! The only person who was miserable was me, who had tried so hard to stick to the plan all week instead of just bailing and moving on.

Life’s not always going to work out the way you want it to. It’s always good to try, but sometimes, trying your best isn’t going to make a situation better. You can prepare all you want, but sometimes, it’s okay to bail on your plan. Sometimes, doing that is the only way to let the joy in and let the Spirit do its work.

Rev.Ashley DeTar Birt is a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary where she obtained her M.Div. She also holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Ashley currently works as the Pastoral Fellow for Youth and Families at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York, NY with some of the most fun kids she’s ever met. Her interests include the intersections of racial justice, children and youth, interfaith communication, LGBTQ+ issues (particularly the B), and Christianity.

When she isn’t at church or doing social justice work, she enjoys writing, sound editing and theatre tech.

Two Time Reigning Failure Champion

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Jess Cook

I do failure really well.

While I’m often reticent to share news of my accomplishments, I have very little issue with standing in front of a room full of strangers and talk at length about the myriad of missteps, wrong turns, and awkward gaffes I’ve experienced in my life. In fact, my affinity for sharing my failures is why I’m writing these very words. For the last couple of years at the NEXT Church National Conference, there’s been a Fail Story Slam, where folks are invited to share stories and laughter and to lean into the awkwardness of being human, albeit in front of a group of strangers. And it so happens that I am the TWO TIME REIGNING STORY SLAM CHAMPION.

It’s not that I’m a big fan of failure, it’s just that I’ve had enough gaffes to know that if they haven’t killed me yet, they likely won’t. And as someone who values authenticity and vulnerability, sharing our failures is often a way to cut through the b.s. that’s so much a part of the world. Or, maybe it’s a way of owning and telling my own story. I identify as non-binary; and, like many people with marginalized identities, I’ve had to learn how to navigate people’s projections or assumptions about my identity, and sharing stories of my failures can often be a way of getting ahead of whatever narrative folks may have about non-binary people. As Andrea Gibson, the spoken-word poet, says in their piece Your Life:

They’re gonna keep telling your heartbeat is a pre-existing condition.
They’re gonna keep telling you are a crime of nature
and you’re gonna look at all your options, and choose conviction,
choose to carve your own heart out of a side of a cliff,
choose to spend your whole life telling secrets you owe no one till everyone, till there isn’t anyone who can insult you by calling you what you are.

Like many non-binary people, I grew up without having a word for my gender. I never identified as male, and it wasn’t until adulthood that I had language to express why calling myself female never really felt right, either. It’s no surprise to me that many of my failures are in some way around gender, where I was participating in an event specific to women or girls. Looking back, my myriad of missteps in the moments I was trying hardest to be a girl: the stumble at just the wrong time in a dance routine, slipping on my petticoat (yes, for real) in the midst of a debutante bow, or the Freudian slips at the most awkward moment, seem almost like a message from my subconscious: a reflex response to the girlhood put upon me which I tried so hard, yet failed to wear. In many ways, learning to be gentle with myself around my failed attempts at being female has taught me how to be gentle with my other mess ups.

Earlier this week, a tweet by Alexander Leon, a writer at the LGBTQ group Kaleidescope Trust, went viral. Leon’s tweet about growing up queer resonated with so many folks that The Advocate wrote a piece about it. In further tweets, Leon said that the struggle of owning his queer identity early in life is a “gift in disguise. We [queer folks] come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves.” It’s hard not to sound trite here, but my failures have been the biggest asset to learning and loving who I am; and, in turn, to loving others.

Throughout the month of January, we’ll have folks sharing stories of trial and error in their contexts. The hope is that our stories of slip ups and failures will show more of who we all are, to encourage us all to be a bit gentler with ourselves and one another; and, even more, to see the beloved Spirit weaving us together through it all.

Rev. Jess Cook is the Program & Communications Manager for More Light Presbyterians. Jess holds a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary and also attended the University of North Texas and Baylor University. Jess was the first openly non-binary person to be ordained as a Minister of The Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Prior to joining MLP, Jess was the Youth Programs Director at Side by Side, an organization in Richmond, VA serving LGBTQIA+ youth. Jess gets excited about most things, particularly the sacraments and conversations about how we can create spaces where everyone is seen in the fullness of who they are. They live in Richmond, VA.