Chase, Kansas: Population 436

by Catherine Neelly Burton

By any standard, Chase, Kansas, is small. The 2018 census estimate put the population at 436. Of those 436 people, 13 are members of the Community Presbyterian Church which sits at the corner of Oak and Grove streets in the middle of the 186 acres that is Chase.

Photo by Kealan Burke on Unsplash

Chase was always small, but there was a time when small towns thrived. Fifty years ago, Chase had a movie theater, restaurants, and a hotel. Those things are long gone. There’s still a school and one gas station where you can get a burger. There’s also a part-time bank, a post office, a senior center, and the co-op, but you can’t buy groceries in town or see a doctor.

This scenario plays out again and again in Kansas and other parts of the country. Migration from small towns is not new. Nothing about this is remarkable. What’s remarkable is the impact that the Community Presbyterian Church continues to have.

The name of the church is important. Over 80 years ago members of three churches in Chase united and formed a community church. They wanted the structure of a denomination, and since none of the three were Presbyterian, they decided to become Presbyterian so as not to favor one of the three. The important thing was to be a community church, and in 2020 they are that more than ever.

  • A few years ago, the congregation bought the house next door to the church, gutted it, and turned it into a community food pantry where they serve about 30-40 families a month, or about 25-30% of the town. They fund this with donations, grants, and church resources.
  • Any time the school social worker needs shoes for a student, the church buys them.
  • The school social worker gives the church a list of gifts needed for children each Christmas. The church buys and delivers the presents.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The people in the church love God and love their neighbors, and they want to show God’s love. The church is fortunate to have money, not tons, but a steady source of income in addition to tithes and offerings. Years ago, a church member left some land to the church. The church gets money from an oil pipe that goes across that land and money from someone who farms on part of it.

For a long time, church members insisted on saving the money. When “the Depression era” generation gave up power to those who currently lead (now retirees), they started investing the money in the community and in keeping up their facility. They put an elevator in at their church, so the building is 100% accessible.

When a woman who grew up in Chase moved back home, she tried to start Sunday School for children. She knocked on every door in town, and no one came. Not deterred, she adapted and created a Wednesday after school program, advertised at the school, and kids came. The children are fed, they play games, do crafts, and learn Bible stories. As the elementary children aged out of the program the church started a middle school youth group on Sunday nights. The church started paying for these children to go to the presbytery camp each summer. This year 26 children and youth were registered before camp was cancelled.

How do 13 people do this? They don’t do it alone. They pull in their friends and neighbors, continuing the mission of the community church. They do worry about what will happen when they can’t continue, but for now they keep going.

I asked if they had ever had conversations with the town 12 miles away, which has a part time PCUSA pastor, about a yoked pastorate. They wondered aloud about what a pastor would do. The pulpit is filled by church members, retired pastors, and commissioned ruling elders, and they – the members and community – do everything else.

It struck me that most of the conversations I hear around rural churches circle back to a clergy shortage. Chase hasn’t had an installed pastor since the 1980’s and has done quite well. Perhaps it’s time that the broader church stop centering itself around pastors and instead center itself on mission like they’ve done in Chase, though if a pastor were fortunate enough to serve in a place like Chase, I think they’d have a lot of fun.

Postscript:
Chase, Kansas, is in Rice County, which as of June 1 has four confirmed cases of Covid-19. The people in Chase deal with problems of the world such as poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, and lack of opportunity, but the news cycles around the pandemic and protests seem very far away. I visited Chase (with my mask – good grief, I didn’t want to be a virus carrier from the city) on May 22, before any of us knew the name George Floyd, so I can’t speak to how the news resonates there.


Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

The SHIFT: It’s Time to Make That Change

by Freda Marie S. Brown

I was both mad and sad when I first became aware of the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “Here we go again, I thought. No justice for injustice, no rest for the weary; how long must we endure this, O Lord, how long?” I am quite aware of the cries of my ancestral lineage that goes back almost 400 years. I will never get over the fact that THIS, is the place at which America has arrived; the place where her enduring ethos of white supremacy and racist hatred can now be seen and called what it is in the light of day. For most of the people who look like me, we have known all along the insidious cancer that has fed upon this soil. As an African-American Episcopal priest and mom I will NEVER get over the fact that the list of names has grown longer and not shorter in the past 4 or 5 years. Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor. Four-hundred years and this s—continues? My heart literally hurts.

Besides all of this, I have been unable to get over the fact that the vast majority of my non-POC “brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus” in the Church have been reticent to speak with a single voice about this enormous and ongoing SIN of racism in America. Because I love Jesus Christ and his body deeply on this planet, I have a bone to pick with the Church in its whiteness. I am both mad and sad.

Governments come and go, but the Kin(g)dom of God—that governance which we claim rules forever— is given nary a thought in the minds and hearts of many of you professing Christians. Your submission to the ONE whom we call GOD is often lower than the recovering alcoholics to their higher power of the Big Book. It is simply amazing. Could this be because you are using a limited map of reality, one that no longer fits the current state of growing in spiritual (not necessarily, religious) awareness?

Albert Einstein is famously quoted to have said, “the mind that got us here, will not be the mind that gets us out.” You need a BIG PARADIGM SHIFT; indeed, we all do. A new cosmology is required to accommodate the work of the Holy Spirit at this time in creation. Along with that new map of reality, comes the practice of continuing repentance, instead of some one-shot deal that you have played with oh, these many years. The old mechanistic, predictive, hierarchical, anthropocentric, competitive cosmology will no longer do. It is time for new wine in new wine skins. A dynamic state of self-awareness, mindfulness, and readiness to change must take root within you.

The overwhelming masculine energies of the ages that have given us our current state of affairs, is no longer holding. Witness the state of the nation and of the world.

I want to be clear in my use of the term “masculine energy” though, as opposed to males or men. I am a woman who loves men. No problem there. But the grip of patriarchy has devasted both the world and the Church. For me, the Church’s influence has often been in death-dealing ways that fail to reflect the LIFE of Christ so that others want to live that life. Besides males and females are comprised of both masculine and feminine energies. The imbalance in these energies is expressed in the woundedness, anger, and outright hatred we are observing all around us and in the suffering of oh, so many. I often wonder, “do non-POC Christians really believe a ‘new life’ in Christ exists? No? Is that why so many of them can easily accept the status quo?”

The rise of compassion, collaboration, mercy, and kindness, generosity, and hopefulness are all feminine energies. (Again, not female) and are needed to balance the overly masculine-energized reality that has been created—primarily by you, I am sad to say. You have forgotten who you are.

Repentance, like conversion, is a returning repeatedly to Holy Mystery, whom we call GOD. I commend to you Jim Wallis’ very timely book, A CALL TO CONVERSION, written more than 30 years ago. It is the only way the mind of Christ might truly be formed in ALL of us. I am sorry to inform you that the concept of autonomy has no place in the Kin(g)dom of God. Let me know if you find it in the bible, please. We can remain in a state of continuing repentance by asking the Holy Spirit (with thanksgiving) for it. We pray for all sorts of things. Why not something that really matters?
The entire world, but America in particular, is on a highly desirable path of human evolution. So, discreetly discern when you judge what your eyes are seeing, or your ears are hearing. Human evolution is the telos for which we, POC and non-POC were all created; to be a paradise for the Beloved Community.

That evolution will hurt and be inconvenient to you. It will require the death of many dreams, hopes and most certainly ideologies. But it will not kill you; not if we hold faithfully to the truth of Ultimate Reality—that we are already ONE. As much as you like to feel comfortable and hate being inconvenienced, the Church in America can no longer remain as it is and go with G-D. G-D is on the move. LIFE is dynamic and changes abound. It is time for divinization. It is time to take on Christ-consciousness for the sake of the world.

I and so many other siblings of color can no longer tolerate your apathy, Church. Each one of us must become the change we wish to see in the world. We need you to step up. God grant you the grace to receive this gift and to live into it with us.


The Rev. Freda Marie Brown is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland currently serving as Associate Rector at The Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore. She formerly served as the Executive Director of St. Vincent’s House in Galveston, a 501(c)3 non-profit and Jubilee Ministry of the Diocese of Texas. Prior to coming to the Diocese of Texas, she was the Associate Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the Diocese of Dallas. She received her undergraduate degree from Xavier University of Louisiana and was employed as a clinical laboratory director for 21 years at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas before saying “yes” to God’s call to be ordained priest in His Church. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and a Master of Arts in Religion (with a concentration in Anglican Studies) from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. For 7 years she served as a Palliative Care chaplain in hospice and hospital settings and has spent many hours serving the dying and those who love them.

She loves her work among God’s people and is constantly amazed by the many disguises of Jesus Christ —especially among the marginalized. She enjoys yoga, gardening, cooking, hiking, reading, writing, and listening to jazz. She loves good food, good wine, and good conversation. She is Crystal’s Mom.

Freda is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on the intersectionality of Christian spirituality with what may commonly be called energetics or specifically energy medicine.

Longing for Stories of Encounter

by Rob Hammock

“They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” – Luke 24:32 (NRSV)

In a time beset by social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and one too many Zoom meetings, I long for stories. Not just on Netflix or Amazon Prime as I search for yet another show to binge watch to fill up the time. Even my 4th trip through the series “The Wire” feels stale, despite how much I love its depth and complexity! No, I long for times of the not too distant past calling me back to a sense of humanity that now lays dormant. I mourn our inability to come together and laugh, love, grieve, and comfort each other as we are hampered by this insidious invisible virus.

Certainly, we can come together via social media, conference calls, and appropriately distanced in-person encounters. And yet, this virus, hanging in the air, lingering, waiting for an opportunity, is there to keep us separate. We can attempt to overcome the gap, but prudence and our medical professionals say only so far. There is a “not yet” quality present as we patiently, fearfully, and hopefully wait for what’s next. The fullness of our humanity longs to regroup and reconnect.

As this blogging cohort begins in a season of Eastertide, I am struck by our present reality of a “not yet” time. Just as Luke tells us that Jesus appeared first to the women, then those along the Emmaus Road, and then to the Twelve, they are told to wait for the Spirit.

I think of the disciples and followers gathered in those pre-Pentecost days with a budding sense of the life-altering importance of the resurrection. What did they wonder, experience, fear, and hope in that “not yet” place”? What do we wonder, experience, fear, and hope in our “not yet” place?

In our own time of expectant uncertainty, I know I long for a concrete reminder of my own past for fear that I forget who I am in this upended world. I look back in the archives of my own life for those inspiring and energizing events that point to a path of hope. But I know I often feel that I am the disciple whose seed was sown amongst the thorns and the cares of the world come choking (Matthew 13:7 & 22).

As they waited, I imagine Jesus’ followers looked back too for some further understanding. Sure, they looked back to the prophets and scriptures for clarity, just as Jesus had taught them. But what I imagine they desired and longed for were stories of encounter like when their hearts beat expectantly within along the Emmaus Road as Jesus walked with them.

In this time of stay-at-home distancing in the season of Eastertide, as we knowingly await the spirit to be unleashed at Pentecost, I ask you to journey along with me as I explore my own stories of encounter that energize me, remind me who I am, and solidify whose I am. My stories and path have led me on a life-long journey to work on community development and affordable housing issues, and the stories I intend to share will revolve around those themes. However, more than that, what I want to explore are the faith-forming memories that have shaped my journey as I seek “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly ….” (Micah 6:8). As I journey along my hope is that you may identify your own stories of encounter to hold close, gird you up, and bring you strength and hope. And, as we share and chew on our encounter stories together, may we be willing to use them as guideposts to see if we are still aligned today with the one who encountered us and longs to encounter us still as we emerge from our “not yet” world.


Robert Hammock is Ruling Elder at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although seminary-trained, the last 20 years of his career have primarily have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He recently rolled off of his Session after a 3 year term, but during his time on the Session, he chaired the Christian Formation Committee and Co-Chaired our Discovery and Engagement Committee. The former was focused primarily on child and youth faith development whereas the latter was focused on congregational innovation to better engage people at the church. He remains currently active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of their campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and affordable housing.

I’m an Asian-American pastor in a Black immigrant church in Queens, NY, sick with COVID-19 and family working in healthcare. Here’s what that’s like.

by Christopher De La Cruz

The ritual starts in the garage.

Sometimes it begins with my mother, an ICU nurse, spending a few minutes doing breathing exercises and collecting herself from a near panic attack. Other times, she just wipes the sweat off her palms. Either way, it then leads to my father, an ER nurse, watching at the door, wearing a mask and waving his gloved hand, as my mother walks to her car for the nightshift.

Both my parents came to America in their early 20s, when the country in the 1980s turned to Filipino immigrants during a mass nurse shortage. Now, naturalized citizens like my parents are once again serving America in a time of need. I wonder if, dealing with racism their entire lives and now witnessing Asian-American racism spread across the country, they feel bitter about a country they’ve given their lives to turning on them again and again. I feel bitter, but that feels self-indulgent.

My dad was able to retire at the beginning of this month, because of a heart condition that made him too vulnerable to work. That doesn’t make the garage ritual any easier. 

My mom knows she’s heading into a hellish crisis zone of overcrowded hospital rooms echoing with the sound of ventilators and the crushing rhythm of beeps and alarms – a place where my mom told me she “has gotten used to wrapping bodies.” 

My dad knows this is probably the closest they physically allow themselves to be. They have to sleep in different beds and spend most of the days they have together in different rooms so my dad doesn’t get infected.

The ritual ends with the car driving off, my dad lingering at the door just a little too long.

. . .

I have my own ritual, but it’s much shorter. Whenever my cell phone vibrates, I stop and take a breath.

I’m mostly worried about a phone call informing me one of my immediate family members has it.  In addition to my parents, my brother and sister-in-law both work in hospitals.

There have been a few times I’m actually yearning for the buzz, mainly waiting for more help from my doctor. At the end of March I was diagnosed with presumed-COVID-19 – presumed because in NYC if you don’t have serious symptoms you’re told it’s less risky to just stay inside than to get a test, and presumed because my chest tightness, body aches, and breathing discomfort made it obvious I have it. As of this writing, April 30, I am still experiencing symptoms. I suppose taking ritualized breaths is required for me to get better.

Other times, I have to take some breaths before picking up my phone not because of the call, but because I was just trying to help one young child do her math schoolwork remotely as my other child does somersaults off our couch again. Wait, did he finish his preschool Science video on the iPad yet? When do we get to play Netflix kids shows for hours? My wife and I exchange sighs throughout the day.

I experience pretty much every human feeling as I pick up the phone for congregants. I am the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, a diverse black congregation with over 30 nations represented and residing in one of the epicenters of the epicenters of this pandemic.

As with many other black and brown communities in the country, our neighborhoods are feeling the crushing weight of systems that had already been stacked against them prior to the crisis. Here we have a disproportionate amount of essential workers – healthcare workers, government workers, home health aides, grocers. (A quick shoutout, by the way, to the mom and pop stores off Jamaica Avenue waiting anxiously for PPP funds as Shake Shack received its now-returned bailout.)

And so there are the deluge of calls about someone being sick. Everybody in our community knows somebody. Over the phone, I’ve heard about a daughter who has not been able to hear from her elderly mother in a nursing home for months. I’ve listened to multiple people with family members that were starting to get better, but then died a few days later. I talked to a husband who had COVID-19 but stayed home while his wife, critically sick, was shuffled between hospitals and a makeshift center, cherishing the few Facetime calls he was able to have with her. 

I’ve learned about people dying though many different platforms: across Zoom, over text, in emails.

I would feel irresponsible if the only impression you got of our community was death and despair. We have a care team, officially and unofficially, that spend hours a week calling other church members to make sure they are alright. We have dedicated volunteers, decked out with face masks and gloves, who still come out for weekly food pantry and soup kitchen. I can’t tell you how many texts, calls and messages I alone have received from community members supporting me in my illness.

I am so proud of our church, and of our head pastor, Rev. Patrick O’Connor, for working with New York State and Community Healthcare Network to host a walkable COVID-19 testing site, the first in the city. Many folks in our neighborhoods rely much more on public transit and walkable communities than others.

Our church and the community we live in have always come together, have always risen above and not allowed ourselves to be defined by our circumstances; I wouldn’t expect now to be any different.

. . . 

I suppose as a pastor this is the point where I should make some grand statement about God and providence and salvation, or something. To be honest, though, I have had almost no time to reflect. I’m too in-the-moment and too wired in crisis-brain to have any profound, theologically-robust insight.

Mostly, I just have one more ritual to share with you. On days when I can, I wake up early, close my eyes, and then just sit with God. In silence. 

Just a little too long.


Photo credit: Cliff Mason

Rev. Christopher De La Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris is a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

Multiple Memberships on a Journey of Faith and Perseverance

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Mark Davis is curating a series that will explore the idea of membership and the challenges and promises that come with it. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sid Chapman

As a part-time pastor in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, an educator, former president of a local education association, a president of the Georgia affiliate of the National Education Association, former candidate for the Georgia State School Superintendent, and the current Chair of the Spalding County Democratic Committee, I have a broad area of participation in church , education, politics, and social organizations. One may ask how can one person be so involved in so many directions? Honestly, I don’t even know how I do all that I do without at least a cape! I can only say that I have a passion for faith, education, politics, and social issues in general.

(Photo by Eugene Zaycev on Unsplash)

I was born and reared in a small town in Georgia by a divorced Mother of six. We lived on a tight budget and with a faith that sustained my mother and kept us going. It certainly wasn’t a cake walk for any of us. My mother came from a Methodist family and spent a lot of time in a Presbyterian Church on altering Sundays. It was the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. My mom went through the catechism of the ARPC but remained a Methodist until she married into a Pentecostal Holiness family. My paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal Holiness pastor (converting from Methodism during the Great Depression at a “Tent Meeting”). I suppose you could say that I have strong Wesleyan roots with a splash of Calvinism—sounds like Tanqueray and Tonic!

I spent most of my early years in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition. I confirmed my faith and was baptized in the now International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), received an undergraduate degree at the denomination’s Emmanuel College. I was licensed to preach and ordained in the Georgia Conference of the IPHC and was pastor of one small church after college. While I was in college, I began to question my faith and particularly my affiliation with the IPHC for several reasons. I suppose this conservative was realizing he wasn’t as conservative as he pretended to be and certainly not the fundamentalist scripturally as he wanted to be perceived. My life was full of contradictions and deep groanings to be free from the microscope of a religion that I didn’t feel comfortable in though I experienced glossolalia and prayed earnestly to be sanctified!

To make a long story short, 1987, I started visiting the United Methodist Church. I was totally disillusioned with religion, but I was still seeking a faith, a home, a compass for my life. I was encouraged to transfer into a program that would have led to my becoming an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church by my new pastor. I spoke to him about my feelings of possibly entering teaching. My pastor said something profound, “the call of God is fluid and can take many shapes and forms!” I became certified and taught high school social studies, adult education classes, college level economics courses, and finally union leadership. During this time, I started serving as a part-time pastor of small churches in the UMC. I must say my journey has been busy by all these positions and adding Master of Education, Doctor of Education degrees, and a Course of Study in United Methodist Ministry at Candler Theological Seminary at Emory University.

It would take a lot of time to share my whole story and all my struggles in my lifetime. My struggles have been very personal that have affected me physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, with numerous nuances. I have persevered to reach this juncture of my life. I now find myself in a situation in my adopted denomination of facing the very real possibility of schism. Our denomination is torn over LGBTQIA+ and other issues. Whether members of this community should be in ministry and whether UMC members can perform gay weddings and/or can they be performed in our churches. The Church in the USA has a majority for inclusion; however, the UMC is an international connectional church governed by a General Conference and Book of Discipline compiled by the General Conference delegates from around the world. I find myself once again not knowing where my ministry will continue or if at all.

One of these days, I’m going to write a book revealing all my struggles and my triumphs. My story is a story of faith and perseverance. A high school dropout that took the GED and now holds a doctorate degree. A guy who has so many interests and came through many dangers, toils and snares. I suppose if I were a good Presbyterian, I’d say it was all Providence! A good Methodist would say the same or Prevenient Grace. The church in general must decide its role in an ever-changing society. Before I am gone from this earth, I pray most of these questions will have been settled, but no victory lap so far!


Sidney “Sid” Lanier Chapman, Ed.D. is an educator and education leader in Georgia. Immediate past President of Georgia Association of Educators. Currently Assistant Coordinator of Textbook Division of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Clayton County Public School in Metro Atlanta. Sid is also pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, Riverdale, GA. Chapman is also the Spalding County Democratic Committee Chair, Griffin, GA.

Talking Membership… in a Join-Averse World

by Mark Davis

About four times a year I lead a “New Members Inquiry.” Once upon a time it was called “New Members Workshop,” but we had to adjust the language because many people were interested in the content but wary of being committed if they attended. The name change was a small concession to a large challenge. It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.

While I share many (not all) of the concerns that people have regarding institutions, I am a strong advocate for church membership for two reasons – one of which is theological and the other of which is biblical.

The theological reason I strongly push membership is because I do not want to see the church reduced to yet another cog in the wheel of capitalism, where every decision is predicated on passing the muster of “What’s in it for me?” The church is not a vendor, at which we shop as long as we like the products it carries and the service it provides. It may be the case that this is exactly how people will approach the church regardless of my theological convictions, because we are surely steeped in capitalist rationalization. And, while many people whom I admire argue that we should de-institutionalize the church, starting with eliminating the notion of membership itself, I worry that we would lose something extremely valuable in the process. What we might lose falls under the biblical reason that I strongly push for church membership.

When the apostle Paul addresses church membership, his ongoing analogy is to speak of the church as a “body.” Indeed, one meaning of the English term “member” is “body part.” Most of us have lost this association in our language, except for the term “dismember,” which we still use to speak of losing a body part. Likewise, the term “remember” carries the connotation of being re-attached to something that is part of us. In Paul’s language – which I believe we should strive hard to recover – “membership” is an organic term, not an organizational one.

My favorite illustration of what membership means is a story I once read about Ben Franklin. He was writing a letter to a friend and asked the friend to excuse his handwriting, because the gout in his large right toe was being particularly bothersome. The very idea that swelling in the large right toe could make writing with his left hand shaky is a perfect example of what it means when Paul speaks of being “members one of another.” We weep because another is hurting; we rejoice because another is dancing; we tremble because another has gout. Becoming a member is not simply a matter of joining an organization until it no longer suits us. Members take the risk of being vulnerable to each others’ joys and concerns.

This organic use of the word “member” is richer and more authentic than our typical, organizational approach to the term – whether we consider ourselves for or against it. While I do not want to discard the word “member” because it seems to be overly institutional, I am not suggesting that we simply chug along, using “membership” a metric for measuring success. What a wonderful moment it could be if we lean into our aversion to “membership,” explore what it is that we find untenable about it, and express a vision of what an authentic church would look like if we were organically “members” of one another.

Throughout this month we will reflect on membership, with many of the challenges and promises that come with it. Stay tuned.


Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Re-post: Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 27, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Paul Roberts

17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out. (Deuteronomy 7:17-19)

13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. (Nehemiah 4:13-14)

And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2)

These are just a few snapshots in the life of Israel, moments when they are commanded to go forward into new and sometimes dangerous places and circumstances. Each time, the people of God are challenged to first look back, to remember, to be confident not in themselves but in the God who is constantly sending and rescuing and delivering and saving and calling and loving.

sankofaIn the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. SANKOFA is visually represented by a bird that is in forward flight while looking back, with the egg of the future in its mouth.

At Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, our tag line is “called to create what’s next.” But to create what’s next, I believe we do well to first look back, gather all the best in preparation for exploring what’s next. Should theological education today resemble that represented in scripture? Many would question whether that is even reasonable, but, if it should, then it seems that that education must be less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about the formation of a way of life, of being.

Pastoral education should not take place in an isolated academic environment, but in the midst of the world for which the disciple is being prepared. It should, at least in part, take place at a point within which there is a seamless integration of spiritual, intellectual and practical concerns; there should be strong mentoring/partnering relationships with individuals who have not just experience, but are themselves active learners, willing to push against and test the status quo, who themselves embody faith rather than just imbibe knowledge about faith. These mentors should be men and women who can exegete the culture as effectively as they can exegete Scripture and are able to guide the disciple in how to weave both exegeses together.  So, pedagogy should move outside the walls of academe and into the world of the missioning God where people live and work and worship. The interaction between academy, church and community should be always in flux.

Looking back for one more moment, Gregory of Nazianzus (who fled the pastorate four times and was finally forcibly ordained by his congregation) noted that pastoral formation is a life-long endeavor: “Not even extreme old age would be too long a limit to assign.”). Becoming a pastor is the work of a lifetime. Theological education needs to give pastors a better start on becoming a pastor.


Roberts

Paul Timothy Roberts is president-dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. You can watch his keynote to the 2013 NEXT Gathering here.

Re-post: Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on June 2, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Andrew Foster Connors

tension copy“Madame Mayor,” I said, opening the meeting as our group of leaders had planned, “we’re here today because we are disappointed in your lack of leadership. You’ve told us you were going to double the number of jobs for youth and that hasn’t happened. You said you would double funding for after school funding and that hasn’t happened. And you’re closing rec centers after we agreed that Baltimore’s youth need more recreation, not less. When you were elected you made a promise that you would be the Mayor for opportunities for youth. We’ve come here today to see whether we can count on you to make good on your promises.”

Tension. All community organizing expects tension at some point in time. Sometimes we introduce it intentionally. We “agitate” leaders to produce a reaction.

Yet within the congregation, most of us are reluctant to introduce tension. Some of us see introducing tension as inconsistent with pastoral ethics or approach.

Many of us in the pastorate either grew up in systems that trained us to smooth over tension, or were intentionally trained that reducing tension is part of our job description. Our comfort with tension has been further eroded by the qualities of tension that we have witnessed within our denomination and within our political environment that we have experienced as tension leading to the destruction of relationships rather than in the deepening of them.

And yet, even a novice student of the Jesus Way would recognize early on how much tension there is in the Gospels. Anytime Jesus comes around, someone is likely to be challenged. In any church that finds itself “stuck,” or leans toward a status quo that has or will endanger its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, tension is the fire that we light to get people moving. Those of us who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education often report learning the most from the supervisor who asked the question that seemed too “impolite” or “aggressive” to ask. “The patient said she was afraid of dying and you responded by asking her if she was enjoying the food. Why did you ask that question? Are you afraid of hearing her fears?”

We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence. In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

Pastors who want to become leaders within and beyond their congregations can start by practicing creative tension in their own backyard. Take one example – someone comes to you and says they are disappointed with the lack of small group ministry in your church. In their previous church, they say, there were all kinds of small groups that were active.

Pastors afraid of tension are likely to react in a couple of predictable ways. We might react as if this is our responsibility: “I really need to do something about the lack of small groups. I need to work harder on this!” Or we might react defensively: “Well, sorry, but this is not your former church, and we don’t have the resources for a small group ministry.” Both responses deprive the person of the possibility to grow as a leader. They deprive the community of the potential gifts that arise as a result of this leader’s passion and willingness to act on that passion.

A pastor who is comfortable with tension, after listening well, might respond with all sorts of questions that preserve tension rather than dissipating it: “Have you talked with others who share your concern? Would you be willing to? Is this important enough to you that you would be willing to lead such a group or to recruit others to do so? How could I support you in that effort?” By placing some of the tension for the lack of small groups back on the person who first noticed it, the pastor gives that person the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential, and prevents the pastor from inadvertently becoming the fix-it person for everything that’s wrong with the church.

Of course, that person might not be a leader and might not be interested in becoming one. But we’ll never know unless we’re willing to test them out. Every pastor who introduces tension must be prepared to receive at least as much as she gives. But this is a good thing. Imagine the leader who returns to you and says, “I want to start three new small groups. I’m willing to recruit those leaders if you’re willing to train all of us.” Or imagine the mayor who responds to the tension our organization introduced into the room by coming back with, “I’m prepared to double after school funding, but I need you to meet with these five council people and pressure them to vote for my budget.”

Such leadership expands the involvement of all involved, asks more from everybody, and when directed by prayerful discernment, delivers more for the kingdom of God.

Admittedly this kind of agitation is an art, not a science. Tension is only as effective as the strength of the relationships that bear it. There is a fine line between effective agitation that challenges people to act in ways that are consistent with what they say is important to them, and irritation that poisons relationships unnecessarily. But while irritation is never a good thing, neither is a boring church that never expects anything of its own members. The best way to learn how to navigate tension is to practice it, evaluate it, and try again.

AFCAndrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and co-chair of the IAF community organization, BUILD.

Re-post: Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 18, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan. 

Re-post: Holy Ground

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 3, 2012. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

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