Diversity, Acceptance, and the Need for Reconciliation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jason Brian Santos

For as long as I can remember, the topic of diversity within community has never been a serious point of conversation in my home. Coming from a bi-racial family, navigating the challenges of diversity was a fact of life. Growing up, our holiday dinners and birthday celebrations were always an interesting blend of Filipino culture and Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced Americana. While the food was amazing, our feasts were always accompanied by a myriad of obvious cultural differences and unspoken customs. Inevitably, at times tensions arose; sometimes we figured it out and sometimes we didn’t. Consequently, for most of my life, I just assumed real diversity always came with challenges.

Though I would still maintain that viewpoint today, I had an experience in 2005 that changed my thinking about what happens when a bunch of diverse people come together in Christian community. I was working on an independent study course for my M.Div on the topic of young adult spirituality and the Taizé community. My project included a research trip to Taizé, the small village located in the Burgundy region of France, which is home to over 110 brothers – not to mention over 100,000 spiritual seekers who make pilgrimages to the community every year.

For this vastly diverse group of pilgrims, Taizé has become their “spiritual home.” It doesn’t matter where they are from, what language they speak, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, how much money they make or what religious tradition they’re from – in Taizé, everyone is welcomed and accepted for who they are. Each pilgrim is shown genuine hospitality, a 1,500 year-old hallmark of western monasticism.

In Taizé, all pilgrims pray together three times a day in the Church of Reconciliation using sung prayers written in dozens of languages. They study Scripture in diverse groups, which guarantees an assortment of different perspectives on the passage. They work alongside one another preparing food, distributing meals, and cleaning up. They clean bathrooms together and pick up trash alongside one another. Every pilgrim is expected to participate in the communal practices established by the community: the brothers understand that it is in their very participation that these young adults experience genuine acceptance, which in time opens a path towards reconciliation with one another.

These pilgrims aren’t just tolerating diversity in Taizé for the sake of political correctness; they authentically celebrate it as part of what makes the community feel like a living example of God’s Kingdom on earth. In fact, in my research on why young adults make pilgrimages to Taizé, one of the key themes that surfaced was the “feeling of acceptance.” At the core of this feeling, pilgrims experience a tangible sense of reconciliation. This should come as no surprise, considering that reconciliation has been the doctrine undergirding the Taizé Community since its humble beginnings in 1940.

For the late Brother Roger, the founder and first prior of Taizé, reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel. Whether it was offering Jewish refugees sanctuary or caring for German prisoners after the war, the brothers have always sought to be a sign of reconciliation. Even more, as more young Europeans began making pilgrimages to Taizé in the 50s and 60s, the brothers realized they needed to adapt their sacred French liturgies in order to truly welcome the pilgrims into their daily prayers. Latin soon became the primary language used in their sung chants, because it functioned as a universal language belonging to no particular country, nation, or people. Over the course of the next decade, chants in other languages were integrated into Taizé’s prayer book, and the prayers as we now know them gradually emerged. Still today, the sung prayers of the community function as a sign of acceptance and reconciliation.

Come to think of it, it’s rather ironic that these pilgrims find such acceptance in one of the most diverse environments they will likely experience in their lives. Maybe the central reason why is because they are never asked to put aside who they are, as if diversity is a hindrance to reconciliation; instead, through the rhythm of Taizé’s communal practices, the pilgrims are invited to take their gaze off of their own particularities and focus it on what draws them together and unites them – their identity in Christ Jesus. It’s through Christ that we bear witness to the magnitude of God’s reconciliation with all of creation and in Christ, that we are accepted and claimed as children of God.


Jason Brian Santos is the Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation (Christian education, children, youth, college, young adult, camps and conference ministries) at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. He also serves as the National Director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries. He is an ordained teaching elder in the PCUSA and holds a Ph.D. in practical theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Community Called Taizé (IVP, 2008) and Sustaining the Pilgrimage (IVP Academic, forthcoming). He currently resides in Louisville, KY with his wife, Shannon and his two sons, Judah and Silas (aka Tutu). In his spare time, he plays and designs board games.

Created in the Image of God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jan Edmiston

My General Assembly travels took me to a consultation in Magnano, Italy in early October to meet with leaders from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations. The discussion focused on the ordination of women – specifically as deacons – which is under consideration now in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. To be clear, the conversation is about studying the ordination of women deacons and not necessarily about ordaining women deacons.

We were diverse in everything from gender to skin color to nationality – as well as theology. I looked around the room and saw some of my clergywomen sheroes and people who would become sheroes.

Photo from Jan’s blog, “A Church for Starving Artists”

I presented a brief talk on the challenges of Reformed denominations in the United States (PCUSA, UCC, RCA) and shared the issue of diversity. As a member of the predominantly white PCUSA and a Mid-Council leader, our challenges – I said –  include the need for more opportunities for women of color.

After I spoke, one of the Orthodox leaders quietly informed me that women are not created in the image of God. (I asked him to repeat himself because I was pretty sure he said that women were not created in the image of God.) He clarified that “men are created in the image of God and women are created in the image of men.”

It was going to be an interesting week.

Theological diversity is tricky. I find myself giving up almost immediately when a Christian sibling informs me that women cannot speak in church or – God forbid – LGBTQ people cannot even be in church. I am tired of having this talk with my more conservative friends. There is too much work to do for us to keep having that conversation. And yet, we need to keep having that conversation in some circles.

In Magnano, we were the most diverse community I’ve worked with in a long time. But in spite of the array of languages, skin colors, and dress, some of us were miles apart theologically. We all love Jesus, but our understanding about whom God calls varies widely.

As a person who had never seen a clergywoman until my first day of seminary, I understand the process of expanding our realization about who could possibly be called to serve in offices of ordained ministry. And it is a process. I’ve come to see that some of us are called to keep moving forward and let those who are still grappling with issues about “ordination standards” continue to grapple in their own timeline. And then there are others of us who are called to sit with those who are not yet with us and patiently, prayerfully continue to have that conversation, modeling the love of Jesus. The hard part is authentically seeing each other with the eyes of Christ.

As for me, I am still able to have those conversations with those who do not yet embrace what I know to be true: that God calls women and our LGBTQ siblings into ordained leadership. But it’s not easy.


Jan Edmiston is Co-Moderator of the 222and General Assembly of the PCUSA. She is a Teaching Elder member of Chicago Presbytery.

An Abundant Community

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Sarah Dianne Jones

Community is, by and large, difficult. It doesn’t matter what kind of community it is — anything built upon the basis of human reality is going to be difficult! And yet, community is what we long for. Brené Brown reminds us in her writings that all humans long to belong to something. It’s within the very nature of who we are, and still it is difficult.

Throughout my year with the Young Adult Volunteer program, community was a theme that came up time and time again. As someone who finds comfort in the pages of a book, I found myself reading a book about the nature of community in John McKnight and Peter Block’s book The Abundant Community. Published in 2010, the book looks at how we might engage in our communities differently than generations past have been able to. Where is the room for an abundant, diverse, thriving community in the midst of busier than ever schedules, technology that sometimes seems to have taken over our lives, and the expectation that one is available 24/7?

From the First Presbyterian Church, Arlington Facebook page.

The book, first and foremost, explores the idea of stepping back and reassessing an individual’s role in community. We must be willing to encounter the world differently, at least in terms of expectations upon ourselves, in order to truly be in community with those in our midst. This means we cannot be content with the status quo when it comes to our communities, and must instead reach out to those around us in order to get to know them on a deeper level. McKnight and Block write that we must move from critique to possibility — it is easy to see the places in our communities that need to work, and certainly easy to make broad statements about the “fix” for a problem. McKnight and Block instead ask that one looks for the possibility in a situation, not just the problems.

Where is the possibility in a congregation that hasn’t yet formed ties to its neighborhood? Where is the possibility in a neighborhood with a school that is struggling to get by, surrounded by families whose children have all grown up? Our communities are built up not by seeing these occasions as cause for alarm or as an example of scarcity, but rather as an abundance. Perhaps it isn’t the abundance one was hoping for, but it is certainly enough as it is. There are countless possibilities for an abundant community in both of the above examples — think of the joy that could come from the steps a congregation can take to begin getting to know its neighborhood, recognizing that sometimes ministry doesn’t mean trying to raise the numbers of attendees in worship but rather being present for all those encountered along the way? Or the possibilities for community in a neighborhood that feels its best days are behind it?

Our communities must be rooted in the desire to truly know those whom we encounter in our lives. Everyone carries their own story, their own experience that lends itself to the creation of an abundant, diverse, thriving community. Without creating the space to build these relationships, community will not have the chance to embrace its possibilities, and those possibilities are too great to let slip by.


Sarah Dianne Jones serves as the Director of Children and Youth Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. She previously worked with NEXT Church through the Young Adult Volunteer program.

Nurturing Diversity in Preaching

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Patrick Johnson

About the time I was first discerning a call to ordained ministry, I had the privilege of spending some time with a nearby pastor whom everyone knew as “Pastor Dave.” The church he had served for decades was not the biggest, not the most innovative, and not the most active by a long shot. But it was widely regarded – especially by other pastors – as one of the healthiest churches around. Amid the continual swirl of tips, tricks, and programs for doing church better, Pastor Dave had patiently cultivated a diverse and strong congregation. I asked Pastor Dave one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied quietly, “There’s one question that often keeps me awake, especially on Saturday night. It’s probably the driving question of my ministry: God, what kind of people am I forming?”

Week in and week out, more than anything else, preaching forms a congregation. In small bites of 15, 20, or 30 minutes, added up over the course of seasons and years, preaching cultivates a church by shaping its questions, fostering its conversations, kindling its faith, weaving its guiding metaphors, naming its values and beliefs, setting its tone, and ultimately nurturing its diversity. How can we nurture diversity and make room for difference from the pulpit?

One place to start is simply to recognize the rich diversity that already exists in our congregations, even in congregations that look the same on the surface. You can sense this standing at the door after worship, hearing fifty or a hundred different versions of the same sermon. It’s not that the sermon was muddled, but that it was speaking into a thick context of engaged and multi-layered meaning-making. Each of us listens with a set of beliefs, values, experiences, questions, challenges, hopes, and fears that is our own personal hermeneutic. Sometimes in a sermon, this hermeneutic reminds me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but more often it’s where the Holy Spirit does her connect-the-dots work in my soul.

In my experience, finding ways to explore my congregation’s rich diversity has made me much more sensitive to how I nurture diversity and create room for others in preaching. Feed-forward and feedback discussions – discussing the text and sermon before and after preaching – have been invaluable. They have helped me understand how a text and sermon actually intersects with the lived experience of the congregation. I have learned where the affirmations are, and where the pushbacks are, where nuances are needed, and most especially where others’ views and experiences are different from mine.

It’s also been very important to me to find ways to celebrate and affirm diversity actually in the pulpit. As a friend says to her congregation often, “God created a riot of diversity. Get used to it!” Imagine if we intentionally and regularly preached on the diversity of creation and the kingdom of God the same way we intentionally focus on stewardship, or mission, or even Advent and Lent? And surely that would include making room for a diverse group of voices in the pulpit. Any congregation, no matter how small or homogenous, needs to hear a variety of preachers. Different races, genders, life experiences, and diverse ways of speaking the gospel breaks open new meaning and makes space for others.

Of course, even as we cultivate the voices of others in the pulpit, we can’t neglect the really important work of finding and claiming our voice. Preaching that tries to be all things to all people or treats the pulpit as a “neutral space” does not, in the end, create a diverse or strong congregation. Ironically, it creates a fragile congregation, where people are afraid to be different from one another and there is little room for the stranger. On the other hand, preachers who can bear witness to God’s word to them, who can confess their core convictions and name their deep questions, and especially who can be honest about their blind-spots – in the long run, those preachers shape congregations of people who can do likewise. To put it simply, by being ourselves we make room for others. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but well-differentiated people – and preachers — are essential to diverse community.

We’re living in such a sharply polarized time that maybe one of the few things we share in common is a deep concern about our ability to hold together as communities and plural societies. Yeats’ grim diagnosis in “The Second Coming” – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – has become a daily worry for nearly all of us. One of the great promises of the gospel is that in Christ all things do and will hold together – even the most diverse congregations of our wildest imagination! The work of preaching, over seasons and years, is to invite us to live with and into that promise. When we trust that the center will hold, riotous diversity is not a threat – it is the joyful feast of the people of God!


Patrick Johnson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina and an active member of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also the author of The Mission of Preaching: Equipping God’s People for Faithful Witness.

Peace, Unity, and Purity Redux: What Theological Diversity Might Look Like Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

— W-4.4003 g. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

The year 2001 seems like a very long time ago in so many ways. George W. Bush was president. The top five TV shows were Friends, CSI, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Law and Order. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. And there were, of course, the horrific events of September 11, with continuing implications and trajectories.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a different enterprise then as well. Larger, for one thing. More members and more congregations. (That’s an observation, not a commentary!) It’s much too soon for a historical analysis of that moment, but we can certainly remember it as a time of conflict and contention. We sparred in church courts and on the floors of presbyteries and General Assemblies about theological matters and their polity implications. The issues were twofold: 1. our Christology – our thinking about Jesus Christ; and 2. our understanding of human sexuality as it related to our ordination practices. In each issue were embedded biblical arguments, theological arguments, polity arguments, and views of culture and power.

In the midst of a particularly fractious moment, the 213th General Assembly called for the establishment of a theological task force. Its charge:

“The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

“The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

I was privileged to serve on that task force, serving then as one of its younger members, a local church pastor with an interest in church history, and one who had been active in the ordination debate while seeking to build bridges with those who disagreed. Serving on the task force remains a highlight of my ministry, both for the relationships forged and the work we did.

Both our process and our product offered, I hope, something for the church at that point and as it moved forward. People still comment to me very positively about our work. I am grateful for that. We took relationship building seriously. We prayed and worshiped together continually. We engaged in extensive Bible study. We discerned – holy cow did we discern! All of that mattered greatly. (In fact, when people point to our experience, I remind them that any group can do that – pray, worship, study, and, in fact, it’s easier to do in geographic proximity over a period of time than flying to Dallas every so often!)

We produced a report – adopted unanimously – that recommended several ways for congregations and presbyteries to renew their covenantal partnerships. All of those were widely embraced. We also recommended a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. In shorthand that was called “local option,” but it really sought to reaffirm the duties of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination stands in particular settings. I like to remember that there were members of the theological task force supportive of and opposed to new ordination practices, yet all of us supported that recommendation. It passed as well at the 2006 G.A., but with a divided house following rigorous debate. (Here’s our report.)

It is now sixteen years after our work began and eleven years since we issued our final report. Much has changed. Ordination and now marriage seem to be settled matters. The most recent General Assembly offered very little debate on the issues around which the task force gathered. Many congregations have departed our denominational family with perhaps more in the pipeline. The culture is at a different place as well, though what had felt like a consensus also feels like it is perched on an uneven surface.

Part of our work as task force members was to itinerate across the denomination, visiting presbyteries, synods and congregations, and sharing our report. It was a great privilege and a wonderful learning opportunity. People of all stripes showed up, and regardless of what they felt about the report, and in particular recommendation #5. I could tell how much passion and energy and love they had for their church. That hasn’t changed, even though the forms and faces have.

I remember one visit in a particular, which pivots to the point of this blog entry. It was in a neighboring presbytery from where I live, so I could make the drive and back in one day. After my presentation and an extensive Q and A period, a minister approached me, in his 40’s or so. He expressed appreciation for my presence and for the work of the task force. Then he said this to me: “You know, I am a conservative pastor serving in a conservative congregation in a largely progressive presbytery. I know I will be on the losing side of most votes we take. I can live with that. What I really want to know is whether there is a place for me in this presbytery, and is there a place for my congregation?”

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us?

I told him that I certainly hope so, that our report sought to make space for those who disagree. But I also acknowledged that no report, no Book of Order provision, could guarantee that deeper response. Only the quality of relationships and the spirit with which our polity is engaged in any one context can establish that place, can make that space.

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us? Those questions abide.

We are in a very different place as a church and as a culture, very different in so many ways. I pray, in our congregations and in our presbyteries, that we can find a place for those who disagree with us on important theological matters. “Agreeing to disagree” is the shorthand way of affirming a core Presbyterian principle, engrossed even in our ordination vows. How we do that in congregations and how we do that in presbyteries, in all of our relationships as Presbyterian followers of Jesus – in 2017 and beyond – will go a very long way to ensuring our health and vitality and position us for renewal and service.

Eleven years ago, the Theological Task Force concluded its report with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”

That affirmation makes theological diversity as a manifestation of unity not just a good idea, but a confessional mandate. How we make it visible and real in 2017 is a challenge whose daunting nature is only surpassed by the graceful possibility of the opportunity.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Wandering in the Desert

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Thornton

We were a people wandering in the desert – grieving, aimless, keeping to our own; bewildered after a season of dissention, debate, distrust, and dismissal. Eleven of our sister churches were gone, several more were discerning their futures, and we were left to wander brokenhearted.

We were a people connected by membership in a diminished presbytery. We were from Korean, Hispanic, Indonesian, Kenyan, Chinese, Anglo, African American, Taiwanese, Formosan, and Vietnamese congregations. We were from Not Church in Mexico and an RV Chapel near the Pacific Ocean.

We were so different. We were from churches large and small, rich and poor, long established and recently birthed, conservative and progressive. We worshipped in many styles. We read scripture through varied lenses.

How could we heal this wound? How could we fill this emptiness? How could we build trust? How could we bridge the theological divide? How could we arrive at the Promised Land? We did not know how.

We were a people longing to connect, aching for community, missing what had been, afraid, yet daring to hope.

We went to committee meetings and worked through the business. We came for presbytery gatherings that felt contentious, where groups competed for power, advocated for their own causes, and fostered an atmosphere of winners and losers. It felt wrong. We knew we could be better. We did not know how.

In the midst of our desolation, the Holy Spirit was on the loose. In the summer of 2015, a small task force was commissioned to study the presbytery meetings. They were too long, too boring, too impersonal. The group recommended:

  • Spend less time on business, more in worship.
  • Invite speakers to inspire and equip presbyters and congregations.
  • Focus on building relationships.
  • Create opportunities for conversation.
  • Establish a Presbytery Gathering Team to plan and implement gatherings.

The Spirit “blew through the wilderness” calling us a new way of being. Every minute of each gathering is now carefully planned around a portion of our vision statement. We gather around tables for more than a quick meal. We sit with people we do not know and share stories, answer questions prompted by special speakers, and provoked by careful listening. We are getting to know our brothers and sisters, acknowledging our differences and celebrating what unites us. We look across the table and see the image of God in one another.

We are on the mend. We dare to hope and to trust. We are still wandering, but we journey together and rejoice in our new and renewed relationships. We are on the way to the Promised Land. We are Los Ranchos.


Susan Thornton is a ruling elder at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, and a member of the NEXT Church strategy team.

Sitting Side-by-Side

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jessica Patchett

Nicole’s eyes got big.

“It’s not you, it’s us,” Lisa said.

There had been an audible gasp in the room when I had said that we should ‘segregate’ our two financial asks for the upcoming luncheon.

It was the week after the Charlottesville riots, and we all had trauma hangovers.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Don’t worry about us,” Glencie said. “Just be aware when you’re out and about that people might take that the wrong way”.

“Good advice” I said. “So, let’s remove the ‘ask’ for lunch donations from the room and do that online in the Eventbrite RSVP process, so that people don’t have to know who can pay for lunch and who can’t. Then our general ask for financial support can be the only one we make live in the room.”

“How sensitive of you to think of that,” Lisa said. “I like it. I’ll make it happen.”

Nicole, Glencie, and Lisa are black. I’m white. We’re four of six core team members of a network we launched called Clergy Women of Charlotte.

It was Nicole’s brainchild. She is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition. She’s passionate about encouraging women in ministry to live into their fullest potential. When Nicole pitched me the idea of a local clergywomen’s network, my initial internal reaction wasn’t favorable. Many of the clergywomen groups I’ve been part of haven’t lasted long (or I haven’t lasted long in them).

But quickly, I realized that this one had the potential to be different than anything I’d tried. It would be local and diverse – racially, theologically, politically, generationally, spiritually, and vocationally – in a moment when our community desperately needed leaders to break down the walls between social segments.

At our first Core Team huddle, we had to have a hard conversation about how we would name and define ourselves. There were decisions to be made: would we be explicitly Christian (yes); would one have to be ordained in a tradition in order to find a home in it (we’d hope not); would we stand for something bigger than ourselves (we’d want to be open to the Spirit’s leading).

Out of that discernment process, we articulated our intentions: Our mission is to gather women in the greater Charlotte area to support one another in cultivating health and vitality for sustaining one’s calling in Christian ministry.

At our first public event, about 40 women gathered for breakfast, encouragement, and prayer. We were largely black and white. We were pastors, professors, chaplains, first ladies, bi-vocational laborers, storefront preachers, evangelists, and authors. We were Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and non-denominational. Our speakers that morning included a Baptist overseer with more than 40 years in local church ministry and the director of the American outpost of an international para-church spirituality and justice movement.

And we were all neighbors.

It was a gathering unlike any I had attended in my decade of ministry in Charlotte.

Some people in the room were deeply rooted in traditions that don’t elect or appoint women to the highest leadership positions in their churches. Some hoped this network would help them on their journeys to live fully into the roles available to them in their traditions. Others hoped this gathering would stand behind them in their pursuits to shatter stained glass ceilings. Still others came as members of the LGBTQ+ community, wondering if this network would be broad enough to support them in their vocational endeavors.

When the Core Team met to debrief our first public event, we quickly realized that it would be a real miracle if all these different kinds of women kept coming together around breakfast and lunch tables year after year.

And, in the next moment, we opened our eyes to see that this would be the point of it all: to witness what beauty the Spirit of God would call forth out of our humble efforts to sit side by side, pray for each other, and affirm the dignity of each person’s unique life in Christian service.

Over the past year, we’ve continued to grow and connect with a broader circle of people. We have a web site; we’re filing for non-profit status; we’ve gained the support of seminaries, small businesses, churches, and individual donors. These are enormous blessings that will help us continue and expand our work.

But the most beautiful fruits of this effort are the deep, spiritual gifts of unencumbered friendship. Members of the network host each other for breakfast, work out together, celebrate each other’s personal and vocational milestones, and recommend each other for opportunities to work and serve in ministry.

The Wednesday after the events in Charlottesville, I met Nicole for yoga. Almost at once, we both said, “I didn’t realize how much I needed to see you!” After class, we walked to the store to rehydrate and had a good, honest talk about the week and how we were dealing with it.

And that’s what we hope will happen for many other women as they begin to live together in the diverse community of the Clergy Women of Charlotte: that we and they will continue to push past polite, become intimately acquainted with the deep longings of each others’ souls, and support one another in the ways that God calls us to serve in the world-redeeming ministry of Jesus.


Jessica Patchett serves as Associate Minister for Christian Education at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and as a member of the Core Team of the Clergy Women of Charlotte. She loves a good book, a challenging workout, the great outdoors, and cooking for her friends. You can learn more about the Clergy Women of Charlotte at www.clergywomenofcharlotte.com.

Are We Serious?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Pete Peery

NEXT Church is committed to diversity within our network and church — diversity of theology, race, age, geography, gender identification, stage, role, ability, church size, wealth, political views — all of it. We are committed to creating community amidst that diversity, even when that proves difficult.

That is what Jessica Tate, director of NEXT Church, declared in her blog post to kick off this current series. And I believe it is true. NEXT Church knows deeply the eschatological reality declared by Luke, “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29).

Yet NEXT Church strives to reflect this reality within the sea in which it swims, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And for all our talk about diversity, here is the reality of this communion we love and to which we are committed:

  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is 93% white, 3% African-American, 2.3% Asian, 1.2% Hispanic, .2% Native American.
  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the fourth most financially successful religious group in the USA. In 2016, 32% of Presbyterian (U.S.A.) households had incomes of $100,000 or more. In the Christian Church, only the Episcopalians are richer (35% of their households are at $100,000 or more). The top richest religious groups in the country are first, Jews, and second, Hindus.
  • In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 64% of adults members are college graduates and 26% have post graduates degrees, one of the most educated communions on the planet.

My experience in this communion for seventy years — forty-three of those years serving in ministry of Word and Sacrament — is that as much as we talk of diversity, when one enters a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation, little diversity is evident.

Congregations certainly are one of the only intergenerational communities we experience today. They are also a place where people of different professions and backgrounds gather. But I wonder how often in our communion do we see a sign of when people of different races or economic status or cultures intermingle. I have seen that it is so. I have rejoiced when entering a congregation where I have found that to be true. But I have only seen that very occasionally.

I wonder how comfortable is it for a person who is of very modest means, of limited higher education, of a different racial/ethnic background than the vast majority of the members of a particular Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation to enter into worship and fellowship in our communion? How high stands the emotional threshold to our congregations?

If we are serious about reflecting the eschatological reality of the church, I believe we have to take very seriously the present reality of our communion. We have to take this present reality seriously even as we love, deeply love, the actual people within our congregations right now. Thank God they are there! Yet, even as they are there, how are we nudging the body toward the reality of the church God has in mind?

I’d love to hear a discussion about ways, practical ways, leaders in our communion are facing these two different realities of the church: the eschatological reality and the present reality within the PCUSA.

A couple of teasers I share in conclusion about such ways.

First, hymnody. Instead of primarily singing hymns by WDEM (white, dead, European men) or by 1970’s or 1980’s Christian rock groups (again, mainly white) sung so often in the genre of so called “contemporary services,” how about reflecting in the hymns we sing the eschatological reality of the church? Our new hymnal Glory to God has a vast number of hymns, choruses, and responses from many cultures in this country and around the world.

Second, staff. When the time comes for a search for a senior staff person — pastor, associate pastor, educator, church musician, youth, or children’s ministry director — dare we press to reflect on our church staff a glimpse of the eschatological reality of the church?

If out of faithfulness to the Lord of the church we are serious about striving for diversity, let us be serious about it not just on boards and agencies of the church. Let us be serious about it in the very congregations of which we are a part — for the glory of God.


Pete Peery is the relationship developer for NEXT Church. He formerly served as president of Montreat Conference Center and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC.

 

Our Commitment to Racial Diversity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Aram Bae

Recently a colleague asked me about the racial make-up at the church where I work. Simply put, his question was: “How many non-whites are in your congregation?” It was an easy question to answer, for I could count on one hand the folks who came to mind. While my number may be wrong in terms of actual membership, the headcount is accurate for consistent worship attendance. It’s easy to make that kind of headcount out of a sea of white faces. It, in fact, comes naturally to me; I do this wherever I am, be it at a coffee shop, on the bus, at a lecture, in a restaurant—any time and everywhere, instinctively.

Photo from First Pres Charlottesville Facebook page

The PC(USA) denomination isn’t entirely white, but we’re also not balanced in our racial make-up. According to the new PC(USA) Church Trends site, approximately 8.75% of members identified as Asian, 9.3% identified as African American, 7.69% identified as black, 4.6% identified as Hispanic, and 96.25% identified as white in 2016—just to name a few. We do, however, know when and how to showcase our commitment to diversity, especially racial diversity. It’s good for press, and we’ve got Scripture to back-up our efforts. We pat ourselves on the back for being progressive in this way, and we make efforts to keep moving forward holding hands with non-white peers. Our “progress,” however, can be felt as more of a political ploy than a commitment for partnership. Simply ask a person of color the contexts in which s/he has been invited to speak, preach, teach, keynote, or pray for the denomination on the basis of an event that is NOT about race or diversity. Yes, I’m talking about multicultural tokenism. It still exists, and we progressive Presbyterians play a role in perpetuating the diversity game—we play it when we need it; when it makes us look good.

I have mixed feelings about being a racially and ethnically diverse church. On one hand, how beautiful of an image. On the other hand, as a person of color, sometimes all I want is to be among my people and feel like a majority, even if for a few hours of one day out of a long week when I’m surrounded by anything but a sea of Asian faces. I support our denomination’s efforts in wanting to be diverse—theologically, politically, socially, and racially/ethnically. It’s biblical and right and good. But I also shed a cautionary light to those who are doing the asking. Rather than asking folks to fill a diversity need, we may want to consider asking: “What do you need from me/us?” In other words, turn the tables a bit. Give up your seat of power of doing the asking for your need to be filled, and practice some listening instead. In this way, we just might do as Paul encourages his dearest friends in Philippi: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (Philippians 2:3, The Message translation). The helping hand, in this case, is to be a listening partner. Perhaps it’s time for our denomination to put the “progressive” aside a bit, and simply listen. Simply put, it’s long overdue.


Aram Bae is associate pastor for youth and mission at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. 

 

Freaky Specific

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by James Cubie

“You see it, don’t you?” You see it every day if you have a smart phone. Most of us have smart phones, for better or worse. Really, the smart phones have us…. and our kids.

We see too much of the world in real time: Something perfectly awful happens, or something that’s just mildly irritating. Immediately the commentariats go to work, and the kingdom of the whatabouts comes to life.  

Businesswoman using mobile phone at back seat of the car

We’re in deep. How deep? Ever find yourself asking yourself this question: “What was that important thing that happened three days ago? I can’t quite remember, but I know whose account – or page – to go to, to remind me what it was and what I should think about it.”

When we go, we hear the question: “Which side will you take?” You better decide, and fast. Decide on the basis of who you are. Or, if you’re not sure, decide on the basis of who you’d like to be with, or be seen with. Decide “this day whom you will serve.” And “like” what was said. Better yet: Comment on what was said. If you don’t, how will anyone know where you stand? How will anyone know who you really are?

“Well, who are you?” Darn it. That’s another question you can’t quite get to the bottom of, because we might just be a ‘performance,’ all the way down. Or, maybe you’re convinced you have gotten to bottom of it, and have discovered richness, beauty, brokenness, and all that Myers-Briggs-ness. You carry a history that’s full of power or powerlessness, privilege or pain. You know your story, inside and out. You’ve read its signs and cursed the darkness that remains.  

But by now, maybe you’re a little tired of knowing yourself so well: Has your knowledge of yourself has become so specific, you’re beginning to feel a little ‘freaky?’ Freaky like: “Am I thinking about myself too much?”

Who is asking you all these questions? Is it – at the end of the day – you, or me? Or all the people and events that make up your life? Or is it Someone else? I don’t know. But Someone might be in there, and that Someone may be trying to move you to a place you don’t want to go. I get it. I’m not sure I really want to go that place, either.  

How can you tell if it really is that Someone?  These are the kind of questions he asks, in order to get us to that uncomfortable place:

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

“Do you want to go away, as well?” (John 6:67)

“Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)

“Do you love me?” (John 21:17)

Answer these questions in as specific a way as possible, day by day, in your thoughts, words, and deeds, and you will start to look “freaky” to the people you know and love.  

But if you’re like me, you’re kind of ready for that. You are beginning to hope that, despite overwhelming efforts to drive us apart on the basis of who we are, there are followers of Jesus who want to move from decent and in order, to freaky and specific. Decent and in order is good as far as it goes, but it may have gone as far as it can.

This is the hope that grounds me when principalities and powers do their utmost to drive us apart: There are disciples who know that whatever comes next for God’s people, it must look so different that Jesus will say, “That’s it!” and fellowship with us. If that happens, then we may truly fellowship with one another, and God can do great things through us.  

 We’ve tried the old questions, and we’ve been working from old answers that are part of the world that is passing away. I want new questions, the ones that, if I answer them with other disciples, mean I can be part of the new world – the only one that really matters.  There’s only one place – one Person – I go to for those questions.


James F. Cubie is Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at Leesburg Presbyterian Church (Leesburg, Virginia). You can follow him on Twitter: @JamesFCubie. He blogs at: FoundationAndFire.wordpress.com.