The Lion and the Lamb

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 Whitney Fauntleroy

I hope that our knees get battered and our heads ache from being bowed down in prayer, hoping that we might be the people who bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth. I believe the Kingdom of God values diversity. Those images of welcome feasts and animals lying together are significant enough for me to believe that the toil of diversity is worth it – for the sake of the church, the sake of the world, and the sake of the kingdom. This kingdom imagery surrounds us every time we miss the mark, mess up, and don’t get it. All that mess around the message of the kingdom and the message of diversity in the Scriptures says that we have to toil and work toward a world where earth and heaven get closer to mirroring each other.

The work is indeed messy. The work is awkward. The work is painful. I have been deeply angered and hurt by a denomination that writes so beautifully about diversity yet often clings to its privilege. Listening to people speak about the call process, I have heard of married women who were asked if they would be committed to the ministry while men who were married were not. Friends who identify as LGBT* wrestling with whether they should self-disclose when those who identify as heterosexual don’t have to. People of color being asked how they feel working in a white church. So many of these questions surround our comfort. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we strive towards a more diverse church.

Many seek out churches because of comfort. We choose styles of worship because they is familiar to us. We choose to join and be a part of communities where we feel comfortable. I am often one of the faces that makes a church appear diverse (at least optically). I struggle to navigate through human nature to be comfortable. I have not spoken up when I heard micro-aggressive statements or prejudices toward minority or marginalized communities. Why? I don’t want my difference to be the only focus. I don’t want it to be dismissed either, nor do I want to be viewed as an exceptional representative of a community. I’ve been labeled “not really black” and an “Oreo.” For years those comments made me feel uncomfortable. Only recently did I start to understand why. Those comments are attempts to normalize one way of being (typically cisgender, white, heterosexual, educated, and male). The church has to push against a narrative that seeks assimilation and calls it diversity. Marginalized voices are standing up against this idea that we have arrived or achieved when we shed our uniqueness for the sake of uniformity. Normalizing and uniformity is comfortable. It is easy; it doesn’t ask for sacrifice, risk, or toil.

We have to stop sliding into patterns that make us comfortable and allow ourselves to be agitated, to be informed, to do our own personal inventories of prejudices. It will be messy, and there will be mistakes, but we have to trudge through it for the sake of the church, the kingdom, and the world.

I imagine that when the lion and lamb lay together, they did not become a hybrid. Perhaps sometimes the lion had to check herself and not roar or become a predator again. Sometimes the lamb had to go against his tendency to be a part of a flock. Each day, they had to be committed to the work of lying together, of getting to know each other without trying to become one another. Likewise, it is hard work to build a table long enough for everyone to be able to sit and access the banquet feast. Diversity is the work of the kingdom. It requires us to toil, to be uncomfortable, and to persist. We have been called to this work in the scripture, and as our world and nation change rapidly, the urgency of diversity seems to have risen to our consciousness. Thank God! The time is now to do the messy work of proclaiming the kingdom message, a message of diversity to a world that always needs to hear it.


Whitney Fauntleroy is associate pastor for youth and young adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Unity Found at the Lord’s Table

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 Douglas Brouwer

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Gladly – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.


Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich who previously served churches in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. Doug received his undergraduate training from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

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 Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   


Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

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

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


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.

Mindfully Anchored in the Word: Nurturing Ministry in a Complex Environment

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 Rick Young

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the fabric of our churches and denomination is a constantly changing reflection of our current national climate. This is something we must not only acknowledge, but address directly. I have had the privilege and honor of pastoring four congregations over the past four decades. Each was different, yet the same sort of blessing in so many ways. A pastor plays many roles — and not always the ones we’ve been trained for. While seminary provides a strong foundation, our most important lessons are taught in the trenches of modern day ministry. There are a few things we need to keep in mind as we work together to nurture ministry in today’s complex environment:

  1. The Church is not an easy place to work and play.

This couldn’t be truer today. Recently, one of my colleagues not-so-jokingly said, “I love the ministry, it’s just the people I can’t stand.” As pastors, we enter into the ministry somewhat idealistically, believing that with our leadership, the kingdom of God will be at hand.  

Then reality sets in. A member of one of my former congregations said, “The pastor’s role is to be a medic in a war zone where everyone on both sides is wearing the same uniform.” We are called to be compassionate, healing servants to all of God’s people. As I was preparing to leave one of the congregations, a dear member and friend handed me a framed poem that she had written entitled, “God’s Firefighter.”

The poem read…

“One of God’s great miracles is fire, sent to us on earth. Another of His gifts is a person who understand its worth. Fire can be vicious, it can rage, destroy and consume. It can be gentle, bringing warmth and light to a cold draft room. An evening round a campfire or in front of a hearth ablaze, can bring a peaceful end to even the most stressful of days. A good firefighter knows when to let a fire burn and when to control, when to light a fire under people or down deep inside their soul. I met such a firefighter when my world was full of strife.  He helped me find the fire, and the way to turn around my life. No matter where time takes us, or how many miles we are apart – I will always have God’s fire and His special firefighter in my heart!”  

In my experience, many times the wars were brutal and even unchristian, and the fires ravaged lives and left devastation behind. But with God’s help, we made it through, and so can you. As I said, the Church and congregation can be at times a rough place to play and work.

  1. The denomination is divided, and we must forge ahead together.

The last five years have brought this to bear for many of us, as we have seen dear friends and colleagues depart the denomination. The process has been painful, and the scars are both deep and fresh. There have been arguments, hurt feelings, truths, and untruths told on both sides of the divide. This is a painful divorce, and sadly there are no winners and many losers.

The division has been expressly felt in the state of Texas, where the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) is headquartered. Presbytery memberships have decreased by as much as forty percent. TPF exists to enable and expand mission — together, which is not always easy in this frayed and tattered environment. But we hope to lead by example. Truly, we’re all on the same side. We stand in the middle waving a flag of neutrality and God’s mission. Why? Because it is what God asks of each of us. We are not naïve enough to think that neutrality protects us from the need to take a stand in the denouncement of evil, as well as the relentless search for peace going forward. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, we keep the door open to help facilitate reconciliation and create pathways for future conversations.  

It’s time. We need to pick up our medic bags, bind up the wounded, and unroll our fire hoses to control the fires that destroy while tending the fires of love and compassion that simmer in our souls.


Rick Young is the President/CEO of the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) and served four pastorates along the way.

Sabor y Sazón

Editor’s note: We have Danny and all of the people who have been and will be impacted by Hurricane Irma in our prayers. We encourage all interested in supporting hurricane relief to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which continues to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew.

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 Daniel Morales

I’m somewhat of a rarity here in Miami – I’m a native! My parents fled Cuba June 25th, 1971, and took up residence in Miami mainly because like so many other Cubans at the time, they felt their migration would be a short-lived one. In those days, Miami was not the glitz and glamour it is known for today. In those days, it wasn’t even referred to as the banana republic, a term some white folks sarcastically use today. As a matter of fact, Miami was actually pretty white back then. My father shared stories of the few occasions in the early days when renting a home for the family was a challenge, either because they were Cubans, or because he had too many kids; four to be exact. I sealed the deal a few years later.  

All throughout my childhood and adolescence I never really thought much about what it meant to be multi-cultural. Quite frankly, I never really gave much thought to diversity either, perhaps because I was so accustomed to being in the mixture of both a homogenous and diverse culture (stay with me for a bit, that will make sense shortly). The little Free Will Baptist church in which I grew up was its own homogenous community of Cuban immigrants in the middle of this growing pot of ajiaco or sancocho that Miami was slowly becoming. (Ajiaco and/or sancocho is a traditional soup/stew from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and various other Latin American countries.)

Beginning with the 70s and most especially in the 80s and 90s, Miami was notorious for being Cuban town. As a matter of fact, my early elementary school years were at a private school right in the middle of Calle 8 in Little Havana. And while it is true that for a while my people made up a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrants of Miami, I have to tell you, I was always surrounded by diversity and it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world to me. My classmates were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Colombian. They were Black, they were White, and truth be told, we made nothing of it; rather we lived and we did what kids do.

Diversity was not something I was completely in tune with – that is, until I became more immersed in my theological studies. Truthfully, I didn’t learn to embrace my own cultural diversity in light of the broader composite of the United States until I left my bubble of Miami and found my way up to Chicago, where I was no longer a part of the dominant culture.

McCormick Theological Seminary was crucial to my understanding of both the complexities and richness of my diversity. That understanding meant that I saw God not through the lens of the scholarship that has dominated theological studies for centuries; instead I came to understand God through the lens and experience of the people of the largest island of the Caribbean. And with that understanding also came greater appreciation for the sazón (seasoning) with which my culture and the various cultures of the Caribbean bring depth to the redeeming grace of Christ.  

El sabor y sazón de mi gente (the flavor and seasoning of my people) adds a certain flare and spice to the body of Christ, and to the broader body of the Presbyterian Church USA. Some would argue our rhythms accentuate the rich and bold ways in which Christ moves in our midst. And that is precisely where the beauty of diversity lies, because though we are all one in Christ, each one of us – each culture, race, and ethnicity – bring to life the unforced rhythms of grace.

For us Caribbean folks, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 3:28 would read something like, In God’s family we are all one; there is no Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican. We are all equal. In the Caribbean we all dance to the same sweet rhythms of salsa — be it from Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, or Jonny Ventura. (Well sadly, except me, I can’t dance!)


Daniel Morales is the director of university ministries at Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, FL. He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Called. And Gay.

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 Kathryn Johnston

On a bright, cold Saturday in early January, the deacons and the session gathered for a combined meeting. The tradition is that as we worship together, the incoming class of officers share the faith journeys that led them to say ‘yes’ to the nominating committee. This is the culmination of their officer training.

As you can imagine, these testimonies cover a wide array of experiences and delivery styles. Most people speak with notes or at least an outline. Some have a fairly cut and dry story: grew up Presbyterian, stopped going to church in college, came back, now want to serve, glad that they can.

I recognize that story. I am that story. But five years ago, I thought that story was coming to an end.

Since high school I have been saying out loud: “God has called me to ministry.”  

Over five years ago I finally said out loud: “I am gay.”

These were two things that I did not think could be true at the same time. And yet, there I was, torn between wanting to resign from my position as senior pastor/head of staff to spare everyone, including myself, the pain of a coming out process; and knowing that running away from God’s call to serve this particular community, without them being a part of the discernment process, would not be faithful.

The coming out process began small – the chair of the staff committee, the clerk of session, two long time members of the congregation, and another ruling elder. I had two questions:

  1. What is best for the congregation?
  2. Where do we go from here?

They encouraged me to stay and we prayerfully and cautiously moved forward; session meetings featuring Bible studies and special speakers, congregational Q&A’s, and conversations with church members. Some of the things we did went well. Some of things we did – and didn’t do – could have been done better. After a few months, the session informed the congregation that they supported my call as senior pastor/head of staff. Some people applauded the decision, some left, and some people stayed even though they weren’t quite sure how they felt about it. I think all of us wondered, “Where do we go from here?”

It was hard to know what would come next for the congregation. The area of the country where the church is located is fairly conservative, with a general approach to controversial topics of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I held up what I thought was my end of the bargain. I didn’t seek out publicity. We just continued to do what God had called us to do: proclaim the love of Jesus Christ through worship and mission.

Of course, word did get around which resulted in more people leaving, but other people started coming. Some of them joined. One of those new members was at that January meeting this year. She stood up to give her testimony. She told us about being called to serve as a deacon at her former church. She told us about meeting her now wife, and how that meant she had to resign from being a deacon. Her eyes welled with tears.

I looked around the room through my own blurry vision. Everyone was transfixed as she shared what it was like to now be in a community of faith where the way she was fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image did not stand directly opposed to the call she felt to be a deacon.

Her testimony ended with thankfulness to those whose courageous decisions led to her not just being welcomed into the congregation, but also being eligible to serve. “Thank you,” she said, tears now streaming. The elders and deacons rose as one to embrace her, just as they had done with me five years earlier.

  1. What is best for the congregation? Keeping our minds and hearts open to who God is calling us to be.
  1. Where do we go from here? Anywhere God calls us, proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ.

Kathryn Johnston is pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathryn earned her M.Div. at Princeton Seminary. She and her wife have four children (3 ‘adulting’ out in the world, 1 in middle school), 2 cats and a lively lab mix named Teddy.

A Commitment Borne of the Gospel

by Jessica Tate

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.

We are committed to creating such community in diversity because our theology instructs us to do so. The apostle Paul teaches us that the Body of Christ is, by nature, diverse. Jesus’s way in the world seems to suggest diversity too. Clarence Jordan notes Jesus’ choice of inviting both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Publican to be his disciples was, by all common measures, a terrible idea. How in the world can those two be in the same room? And yet, when the two of them walk down the street, both followers of Jesus, people could see that something different was afoot among the followers of Jesus.

The Belhar Confession clearly calls us toward diversity in community stating,

We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain. (10.3)

But this is not just a nice idea from a relatively new confession. The Apostles’ Creed calls us to belief in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. The Westminster Confession states, “All saints being united to Jesus Christ their head….and being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as to conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” (6.146)

We are committed to a community of diversity for practical reasons, too. There is strength and energy in a broad coalition of people and congregations, and with that comes possibility for change. Wisdom comes when different points of view challenge one another, strengthen weaknesses, help us take the logs out of our own eyes, and smooth out rough edges. Diversity requires us to practice the fruit of the spirit, to have integrity with our stated beliefs.

A community of diversity sounds beautiful in theory. In practice, it is hard. The NEXT Church leadership teams have had many challenging conversations about who makes decisions for our organization, who we want to give platform to speak at our conferences and on our blog — and what those decisions communicate about our commitment to diversity. We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes and we are coming to understand just how difficult it is when people (rightly) perceive things differently. We’ve had to confront one another (in love) about those mistakes and help raise consciousness about perceptions and realities behind those perceptions. Inevitably, it’s more complicated than I could have imagined at the outset. It can make you want to throw up your hands in defeat and drill down into like-mindedness for the sake of prevention of harm or for a sense of righteousness. But we don’t.

We don’t, because we believe that diversity in community is a challenge that is borne of the gospel.

Though almost all of our congregations could be more diverse, we experience some type of diversity in most of our churches. Here’s what I mean. Congregations are one of the only intergenerational communities in public life today. They are a place where people of different professions and backgrounds come together. Congregations are places where people of different political views gather together by choice. Occasionally, congregations are places where people of different races or different economic status or different cultures intermingle. Holding that diversity together is challenging.

We see the challenge of holding community together in diversity writ large in the United States right now. There is heightened anxiety everywhere — fear, anger, assuming the worst about one another. And, too often, those characteristics are taken to the extreme in forms of hatred and violence that cause real harm when unchecked. As individuals and collectively, we must condemn hatred and violence, and I pray our faith compels to us be equally critical of the more mundane fear, anger, and assumption of the worst in others that creeps into our lives on a daily basis — and to be particularly quick to confess those tendencies in ourselves.

Our anxiety and reactivity is fracturing us. I spoke to a young woman recently who hasn’t been able to talk to her parents since the 2016 election. Spend any time on Twitter or reading comments on articles and you see just how quickly people are resorting to name-calling, overgeneralizing, and acting defensively. We are seeing heightened reactivity in our congregations as well. Sermons are (or are perceived to be) unfairly political. Emails are sent in ALL CAPS. There is increased pressure for leaders to make public statements for or against and backlash when we don’t and often if we do. Different generations write each other off as out of touch and lacking in commitment. We are mimicking the culture in our polarization from one another.

And yet, we are called to find ways of living amidst diversity. At a NEXT Church regional gathering a few years ago, Diana Butler Bass suggested that the quandary at the heart of much of the current debate in religious denominations today is the question of community. How big is the table we, as Presbyterians, can set? Who gets to set it? And, what will the conversation around the table be? At the core, do we belong to one another or are we just a collection of individuals?

The NEXT Church blog this month will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. These stories told will reflect the difficulties and the beauty, the investment and the resilience. 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. And we will pray for that day to come on earth as it is in heaven.


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.

Making Room at the Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Lee Baker

Beloved in Christ Jesus, I feel like an imposter among you! In fact, even as my heart abounds with joy and gratitude for the opportunity and honor it has been to be part of the Sarasota Statement as a NEXT Church initiative, I must admit that I felt quite out of place in participating.

I celebrate that I am a relatively young, recently divorced, first-generation pastor and I am a spirited woman of color, but (dare I say it) I am not ordained in the PCUSA. Now, I have served several of your congregations by formula of agreement and I have mooched off your institutions for my theological training, but truthfully I am committed to the Reformed Church in America and I remain largely naïve about the ongoings of your tradition. Heck, I’ve never even been to Montreat!

And so while my ecumenical colleagues were deep in thought (searching for words and wisdom to describe what we believe and how we might respond as people of faith), I was completely panicking – wondering whose seat I had accidentally taken in order to be there.

Who were the people, really, that needed to be present at the table?

Would hearers of the message be critical that an outsider’s voice had been included?

What could I possibly contribute as an individual not entirely familiar with the spiritual mores of the denomination?

All these fears and doubts came with me from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Perhaps they got lost with my luggage because they never made it home.

You made room for me. You welcomed me as one of your own. (And you didn’t even haze me or subject me to a trust fall!) From the first Skype call to the final blog post, I have genuinely felt that I am part of this conversation as a collaborator and peer. I showed up to listen, and you let me speak. I showed up to dialogue, and you let me dream. You gave me a place – especially at a time when I felt out of place.

In a day and age when so many people have chosen to write a “Dear John” letter to the church, the ministry of NEXT Church seized the opportunity to write the Sarasota Statement that actively demonstrated what it means to include one another and to seek out the alien and stranger. I am blessed by your courage to broaden the world’s understanding of God’s kingdom and I have renewed my commitment to do the same.


Katherine Lee Baker has a passion for worship, discipleship, and community engagement for the whole church. Currently serving as a pastor at Central Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, MI), she actively seeks opportunity for ecumenical collaboration, interfaith dialogue, and empowering our next-gen leaders. Follow her on Twitter at @RevKatieBaker.

God’s Beloved Community

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bertram Johnson

One of the things that I appreciate most about being Presbyterian is the interconnected nature of the denomination. While we express them in a variety of ways, our theology, liturgy, worship, and confessions affirm that our faith in God and Jesus are lived and shared in a diverse community with a common purpose and voice.

Although the previous statement is true, as an African American in this predominantly white denomination I have had many experiences that caused me to question the value of my presence in the PCUSA. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, there was a point after seminary when, due to the church’s polity, I decided to discontinue the pursuit of my call. At that moment, it was more important to feel wholly loved in my relationship with God outside of ordained ministry than to endure a fractured and incomplete life within it. Our theology, confessions, etc. have not always been used to create a place of welcome, grace, or inclusion for people who share my experience. Regardless of the past – or current – challenges I experience within the church, I know without a doubt I am called to serve Christ in this community.

When I was invited to help compose this statement of faith and action, I immediately felt a sense of apprehension. Not only was it a significant undertaking to speak theologically and prophetically to the issues of our day, I wanted to be certain that I could bring my whole self to the occasion. It was also vital that the communities in which I hold membership and those I care for see themselves, their struggles, and passions voiced here.

In writing the Sarasota Statement we sought to be faithful to where we sensed the Spirit leading us. Even so, it is not a perfect document. It does not speak to every person whose life and dignity are threatened by the culture and policies practiced by our nation or our Church. In its brief format, we do not address every sin that wounds our spirits, church, and world. But I hope that what you find here encourages you to discover a deeper faith, grounded in humility and courage. I hope these words inspire you to see and confront how our actions and lack of action prevent many from participating fully in God’s beloved community.

I am grateful to add my name to this offering to the PCUSA and the wider Church. I am proud of the ways our group wrestled with our faith and supported each other to achieve what I believe is a significant call to justice and radical love. I am also grateful to share in a denomination that is continuously being reformed, seeking deeper connections, broadening our reach, and exploring more authentically what it means to live in the unity and body of Christ.


Bertram Johnson is Minister of Advocacy, Justice, and Change at Riverside Church in New York City. He has provided pastoral care and social service leadership in churches, non-profits, and faith-based organizations dedicated to justice and public health. Most recently, Bertram worked nationally to promote awareness and access to prevention and support services among communities most disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Bertram holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Social Work from Rutgers University.