Start-ups, Phoenixes…..and the Rest of Us

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Karen Sapio

pheonix smallIn a follow-up to his family’s wildly successful “Christmas Jammies” video, Penn Holderness recently released “Christmas Jammies, part 2”  in which he laments the disconnect between the hipster ensemble his wife gave him for Christmas and the realities of his middle-aging body.  Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait…

I have to admit that when I return from NEXT Church conferences and regional gatherings, I often have something like the refrain from this video buzzing in my head:  They looked so good on that guy from the Internet—but they don’t look so good on me…”

It worked so well for that speaker from the NEXT Conference–but that won’t work so well for me…..

NEXT conferences often showcases fantastically creative ministry startups, or formerly dead congregations rising phoenix-like from their own ashes.  The host churches for the national gatherings have all been large, vital, resource-rich congregations able to support their current ministries with funds to spare for experimentation and innovation.

Like many who are inspired by NEXT Church’s vision, however, that’s not where I live.  I am pastor of a medium sized congregation with about ⅔ of the members over age 60.  In another year we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of our founding.  We can just about make the budget work most of the time, and we are keeping an anxious eye on our small cushion of reserves.  We are not in immediate crisis, but it is becoming clear to those who are paying attention–and there are thankfully a number of those attentive, faithful people–that the current trajectory is not good and that our current strategy of hopeful tweaking is not enough.

I attend NEXT Church gatherings and wonder: How can we generate the energy and excitement of a start-up when we are a long established institution?  How do we foster the kind of urgency and focus that attends a true crisis of viability when we’ve got enough resources to maintain at least some semblance of the status-quo for another decade or so? How do we find the imagination and resources to operate in two worlds: the traditional church we’ve inherited and the new form of church we need to create, especially when we feel like we’ve got barely enough people and money to keep one world afloat?

During February the NEXT blog hopes to foster a conversation around these kinds of questions.  How do we bridge that disconnect between what works for the kinds of ministries that are so inspiring for us at NEXT gatherings and the kind of ministry that seems to be possible in our own contexts?  How do we discover what’s NEXT in the inertia of long-standing habits and traditions?  How do congregations embark on a journey toward the future while carrying the blessings and burdens of the past?  How do we find the energy and urgency to apply ourselves to this task NOW even when there is no immediate crisis to impel us toward big changes and bold risks?

We know it’s a mistake to go for hip and trendy if that’s not our style.  We also know that we can’t keep wearing grand dad’s clothes forever.

Jesus told his followers:  ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

How are you making these connections?  What have you found helpful if you are working toward transformation in an established church that is still doing okay in many respects?  How are you finding ways to generate energy and excitement? To  foster a sense of urgency and focus on the future?  To walk the tightrope between the current church and the NEXT church?  Join the conversation.

And hey, Penn Holderness–I hear you have Presbyterian connections: what do YOU think???

SapioKaren Sapio is Pastor of the Claremont Presbyterian Church a NEXT Church Advisory Team member.

Illustration credit: shutterstock/robodread

Here Come the Plurals

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By Michelle Thomas-Bush

I like to plan ahead, so this week I ordered the class t-shirts for the fall. Every year, our 6th graders receive a visit from an older middle school mentor who delivers their class t-shirt, welcoming them to the next step in their faith journey. That next step is Youth Ministry. What will youth ministry look like for these 6th graders? That is the question we all are boldly asking with each other for the church of Jesus Christ.

Youth ministry is at a crossroads. Those t-shirts look exactly the same every year, with the exception of their graduation year. The Class of 2021. This 6th grade class marks the last class of the millennial generation. We are at a generational crossroads.

Millennials are beginning to graduate, and we are preparing to walk alongside a brand new generation of youth who are ready to embark on a spiritual journey of their own. Leaders will need to shift their concern away from why millennials are leaving the church and towards trying to understand the generation born after 2004. Our excited, energetic, and eager 6th graders belong to a new generation that has been officially named the “Plurals”—a peer group that has experienced their entire life in a truly pluralistic society.

Diversity shapes this generation’s worldview, and they will compete to have their voice heard. Our young people are already asking for help articulating their faith. They crave a spiritual language that they might not have heard from their families and for ways of understanding the mystery of God that are not in their vocabulary as they are experiencing that mystery themselves. Youth ministry may begin to be more about faith conversations than ever before.

Does this mean lock-ins, mission trips, and Sunday School are of the past? I think it will depend upon each individual congregation. As youth professionals, we may need to shift from sharing the perfect program to sharing big ideas instead. (Follow #BigIdeas on Twitter for a conference on big ideas in youth ministry currently happening at Columbia Theological Seminary.)

Our ministry as youth professionals will need to shift from just being chaperones to also being spiritual directors. Whether in a formal spiritual direction relationship or simply as a guide that aids a young person’s life with God, it will be critical for this generation to have someone who knows him or her in a real way and can help them pay attention to God’s activity in their life.

The good news is that it does not matter what size church you are. Spiritual direction can happen with one or one hundred. Whether your church has hundreds of youth on the roles or a core group of six, our youth leaders and adult volunteers will need to be trained to help young people, along with their families, and join them as they move beyond the “stuck” areas in their soul and challenge them to articulate faith as they maneuver through their faith journey.

Imagine if each young person had a few adults in their life who help them identify God’s movement in their life, to laugh, and create sacred space, reminding them that the Kingdom of God is all around them. This next generation will need adults who are willing to meet them where they are with compassion, encouragement, blessing and intentionality in all areas of their life—not just at church.

Let’s not wait to move to what is “next.” Let’s begin engaging this new generation where they are now and inviting them to join us in the mystery of faith.

michelle-thomas-bushMichelle Thomas-Bush is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Michelle and her husband Dave have a son in his first year of middle school ministry and a daughter who would love to join them. She cannot wait to see what comes next and is grateful for the community of youth leaders who support one another through these changing days of ministry.

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, John Vest has been curating a conversation around youth ministry. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

photo credit: Christiaan Triebert via photopin cc

100 Youth

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, John Vest is curating a conversation around youth ministry. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Jessica Tate

class-of-2013I read a New York Times article over the summer that stuck with me. It was based on the findings of ChildTrends, a research group that seeks to improve the lives of children by providing high-quality research and knowledge to  practitioners and policymakers. The article described a hypothetical class of 100 high schoolers and then, based on the research, breaks down the realities of life for these 100 youth:

71 have experienced physical assault.

64 have had sex.

39 were bullied in the last year.

34 are overweight.

22 live in poverty (with 10 living in deep poverty).

As we reflect on a conversation about about what’s next in youth ministry this month, these statistics haunt me.

The young people that churches so desperately want to be part of their communities, this is their reality. Of course, these statistics don’t paint the whole picture. There are stats that are more in line with how we view teenagers. Of those same 100 students,

89 have health insurance.

68 will go on to further schooling.

56 participated in school sports.

39 participated in the performing arts.

28 attend religious services at least once a week, with 26 saying religion is very important in their lives.

This hypothetical class of 100 reminds me that the lives of youth are complex. We do youth a disservice when we reduce them to kids who just want to be entertained. We do them a disservice when we look at them as the saviors of the church or the built-in volunteer labor.

In her book, Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean says the question around youth ministry for most of the 20th century was, “How can we keep young people in church?” (I still hear that question asked pretty often in churches.) Today’s question, Dean argues, is, “Does the church matter?”

Dean answers her own question with a double-edged sword.

First, she says, “the account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – the story that gives Christianity its life-and-death urgency and that insists on the Holy Spirit’s living presence in the world today – goes to the heart of profoundly human questions about belonging, purpose, and meaning.” That story still matters, surely, in the lives of teens who are wrestling with power-plays of bullying, negotiating the complexity of sexual intimacy, and the harsh realities of poverty. But that story, Dean argues (and here’s the other edge of that sword), has been watered down in many of our congregations, replaced by a church and theological complacency that at the end of the day doesn’t address the issues of being human and therefore renders God unimportant.

As we reflect on youth ministry this month, let’s be attentive not only to what’s next for youth, but what youth might teach us about what’s next for the church more broadly. The question we’re really tackling isn’t what’s next in youth ministry? The real question is does the church matter?

JET for bio pageJessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church.

De-Programming Youth Ministry

In this post, Rocky Supinger wonders if the future of youth ministry will have less to do with church-based programming—the hallmark of youth ministry in its heyday from the 1970s through the end of the 20th century—and more to do with engaging youth within their own cultural contexts and peer groups. This is an important paradigm shift from an “attractional” approach to a more missional and contextual approach. If post-Christendom youth are less likely to come to us on our terms, we need to meet them in their worlds. Yet Rocky also points out that there is something unique about church space in the lives of youth. Rocky makes good use of Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0, an essential book to read when it comes to thinking about what’s next in youth ministry.

welcome sneakers copyI’m not all that acquainted with what was “before” in youth ministry in the Presbyterian Church. I grew up an arm’s length from church, and I’ve been an Associate Pastor with responsibilities for youth for a mere six years. Yet allow me to wonder out loud about something that might feature prominently in the “next” iteration of our ministry with junior high and high school students across the PC(USA).

Simply put, I wonder if what’s next is fewer events and groups organized for church youth and more gatherings among established groups of students with no connection to the church.

A little background (and some caveats)…

Each Wednesday afternoon I’ve got two groups of students who gather at the church I serve: one group of junior high girls and another group of high school boys. I’m a bit baffled as to how this came about, as I certainly didn’t plan for it.

Four years ago I invited a couple of 7th grade church kids to drop into the church youth room after school once a week, since they walked right past it on their way home. Within weeks, those students were bringing nearly a dozen of their friends.

For two years that group of junior high boys came to the church once a week. Then they graduated to high school. Their walk home no longer took them past the church, so I didn’t see them anymore. Meanwhile, I extended the invitation to another 7th grader to drop by with her friends after school. Now what started as a “guys” group is all girls, and only two of them are related to the church.

Then something funny happened. I ran into some of those boys who are now in high school and that I don’t see any more. They asked if they could start coming to the church again. Dazed, I said of course, and now there are a dozen or so 10th grade boys at the church every Wednesday afternoon. It’s turned into a kind of drop in center.

I’m not sure what’s happening with these groups. I’m thrilled that students from the neighborhood identify our church building as a place that welcomes them. I mean, I take swipes at “attractional” models of ministry like most of my colleagues, but the fact is that these students are attracted to something they don’t have anywhere else: a building with adults who mostly want to know them and play with them. That’s worth something.

But I’m not teaching them the Bible. We’re not having discussions of life issues. I suppose the most rigorous assessment of what these gatherings are providing is an experience of hospitality that is focused predominantly on recreation.

I wonder if this isn’t a pattern that we should embrace going forward, inviting groups of young people from our community into relationship with us and the church. (note: “into relationship with us” need not equal “into our church buildings,” but church spaces can be uniquely welcoming of teens.)

Of course, hosting gatherings, retreats, and work trips for students in our congregations—where catechesis and life transformation happens—must continue to get all the energy we can give it. But I think we should start supplementing those foci with some exploration of the peer relationships our students have outside the church, looking for ways to walk alongside those relationships.

My thinking in this direction has been influenced heavily by Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0. Oestreicher suggests that adolescents in today’s heavily networked culture don’t need as much from the church in the area of belonging. That is, most of our students belong to their own peer groups that give shape to their life, whether that’s the marching band, the debate team, or the kids they play video games with. That the church would be a place for youth who are “outsiders”—who have no community in which to belong—is not as evident as it once was.

Of course this is not entirely true, and churches must always be places where young people experience a depth of welcome absent elsewhere. Yet the pattern is playing out in my context that groups of young people from the community with no existing relationship to our church are eager to make use of its staff and facilities for the sake of experiencing one another. I wonder if more of that isn’t what’s next.

rocky supinger (472x640)Rocky Supinger is the Associate Pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, CA. He blogs at and has been actively involved in the NEXT Church conversation.

Image: shutterstock/LitDenis

What’s NEXT for Youth Ministry?

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By John Vest

Over the past few years one of the most talked about religious news stories has been the so-called “rise of the nones.” According to surveys and studies, one fifth of the United States now claims no religious affiliation. It’s not necessarily the case that they aren’t spiritual or don’t believe in God, but our society is increasingly uninterested in participating in organized religious institutions. This is especially true among young Americans—a third of adults under 30 fit this category.

This trend is not exactly news for mainline Protestants who have been declining in membership for decades. But now that the decline narrative has reached evangelicals, the most vocal representatives of American Christianity are starting to take notice and talk about it. While much of the evangelical handwringing has to do with a perceived image problem—if we’d only seem less judgmental, homophobic, power hungry, and hypocritical young people would stop leaving—the mainline response still seems muted, apathetic, and resigned. We need more voices—like those in the NEXT Church conversation—interested in moving beyond denominational politics and institutional maintenance and committed instead to paying attention to what God is doing in the world and envisioning how we can be a part of it.

If there is anything worth preserving in the Christian witness of mainline Protestantism—and I believe that there is—then we need to be more proactive in our response to the rise of the nones. It seems to me that there are two basic strategies: 1) reform existing expressions of church in ways that captivate the imaginations and passions of young people and others who are leaving our churches for, well, nothing in particular; 2) work with the youth and young people we still have with the clear intention of long-term sustainability. While I have the opportunity to dabble in the first of these strategies (BBQ Church is my pet project in this regard), most of my time and energy is devoted to the second.

Long gone are the days of thinking about youth ministry as “passing on the faith” to emerging generations. The last thing we want to do is simply replicate among young people forms of church that are on the decline and are clearly not compelling for growing numbers of their peers. Instead, youth ministry in the church that is becoming is more about empowering young people to do the work of ecclesial reformation for themselves. It’s about helping them catch God’s vision of a missional church making a difference in the world and deploying their own passions and creativity to figure out what that looks like in the rapidly changing world they live in and are actively shaping. This is going to look different in each context and there are no one-size-fits-all ideas or models for 21st century post-Christendom youth ministry. But there is an important conversation to be had and perhaps some common themes and approaches to better understand and engage.

I’m excited to be a guest editor on the NEXT Church blog during the month of January, curating a conversation about what is next in youth ministry. I’ll share some of what I’m doing in Chicago and a new conversation about progressive youth ministry that I’m hosting this spring. But I’m most looking forward to assembling a diverse collection of voices from around the PC(USA) that will bear witness to our hopes and dreams for youth ministry that matters and makes a difference in the world we live in.

John VestJohn Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church and blogs at He is completing a DMin thesis on post-Christendom confirmation at McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife and two young sons on the north side of Chicago and in his spare time dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of BBQ and church.

Accounting for Hope

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Edwin David Aponte

Slide1When I told someone that I was asked to reflect on the future of theological education, I was asked, “Is there a future for theological education?” That is a reasonable question given that theological education in the United States is at a crossroads of relevancy and effectiveness to church and society. We are in a time of major cultural changes, demographic shifts, and competing visions.

Most theological education can be traced back to a model from the early 19th century and the short-lived cultural ascendancy of the historic Protestant mainline denominations of the 1950s and early 1960s. But huge social and cultural changes have taken place in which many Americans do not identify with any religion, let alone 1950s Protestantism. The Pew Research Center reports that one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, including more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as the so-called “Nones” roughly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation. Younger people who had some connection to church are leaving in droves, concurrent with generations who never had the experience of any faith community. But this doesn’t mean that there is a decline of spirituality as many in these same groups work for the common good drawing on their own concepts of spirituality and meaning.

In addition to shifts in spirituality and social involvement there are new models and experiences of learning. Computers and tablets are used in many schools. Prominent universities are experimenting with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering free unlimited worldwide participation in the same course via lectures, videos, and interactive forums. Other types of online distance learning are common as people earn degrees or selectively choose from a buffet of short-term opportunities via the Internet.

People are exploring new ways to be church, whether it is called emergent, or missional, a combination, or something different all together. Various types of social media show that vibrant virtual communities are possible. There are worldwide congregations whose life is mostly online as they push the boundaries of time and place. Other congregations are intentionally multicultural across racial, ethnic, and class lines, something still rare in the United States. Increasingly it is recognized that the locus of Christianity shifts from the “West” to places like South America, Africa, and East Asia.

Some seminaries are only just beginning to get caught up with the digital revolution. Certain seminaries are accused of preparing graduates for a church and society of the past. Add to these challenges that many seminaries enrollments have declined since the 1990s, while budget deficits grow. In such a context what is the mission and vision of theological education? One passage of Scripture that helps my thinking is 1 Peter 3:15, “make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (NRSV).  One mission of theological education for the present and the future is to help people called to ministry to articulate Christian hope for these times and places. Excellent seminaries of the future will need to embrace what always has been true, namely that people pursue theological education for a variety of reasons. Some come to theological education with hope well defined, and yet are still “surprised by joy” through deeper understandings of that hope. Others come as searcher and discover reasons for hope, meaning, and undreamt of avenues for service. Some are called to congregational ministry, but seminaries should acknowledge what God has affirmed that the church and the world also need excellent counselors, teachers, and those called to specialized ministries.

Future theological education will embrace gifts of time, space, and community to consider the hope of what we have experienced of God in Christ. Theological education can explore how that hope impacts our society and our life together as we realize we should work toward the common good. At our best in theological education we engage the traditions, but in ways that are relevant for this moment in time, as we deepen our emphasis on ministry and the formation of leaders who develop the contextual capacity to respond to shifting situations.  As theological education produces excellent leaders for contextual ministry, seminaries will be more nimble, offering education in a multiple formats and not just for those pursuing degrees.  Seminaries will be engaged in ongoing dialogue with the communities and contexts they serve.

Aponte-2012.jpgEdwin David Aponte is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Christianity and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. He is a member of Whitewater Valley Presbytery and earned the PhD in religion and culture from Temple University. Aponte’s most recent book is ¡Santo! Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality (Orbis Books 2012).

Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Paul Timothy 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.


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.

What Mandela and Pastors Have In Common

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

What Laura Mariko Cheifetz (in conversation with Lee Hinson-Hasty) thinks is coming and becoming in theological education.

“’People are rejecting leaders who rule by the formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power,’ said Seidman, but ‘they are craving genuine leadership — leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire, to elevate others and to enlist us in a shared journey.’”

Thomas Friedman, December 10, 2013, “Why Mandela Was Unique”

Nelson-Mandela-in-public-hd-wallpapers.jpg-228x131Some say there is no future in theological education. Church membership is down almost across the board, with the exception of Pentecostal churches, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Enrollments are down in many seminaries, and the Master of Divinity is widely expected to continue to be a degree that draws consistently fewer applicants each year.

What future? Why would we bother to talk about it?

Lee Hinson-Hasty declares the death of theological education to be premature, and not just because it’s his job. We sat down the other day for a conversation, and Lee pulled the December 10th edition of the New York Times with this Op Ed on Mandela out of his pocket. Mandela did not march into his position of power planning a giant social takeover, but instead led on the strength of the moral authority he had built over years of leadership, whether that leadership took place from a prison or within his party. Institutions of theological education are preparing people, despite the predictions of ultimate destruction. As Lee sees it, these schools are forming people to lead with moral authority and inspire others to join in a shared journey.

Where pastors and Mandela differ is that Mandela’s leadership could have relied on giving orders based on his power, instead of working to persuade people with his moral authority. Pastors in the PC (USA) can’t make other people do anything. They can’t march around and give orders, although pastor’s orders sound like they would be deeply satisfying to give, and difficult to follow. “Believe!” or “Seriously, just go talk to that homeless person over there” or “You guys. I just need you to tell other people at least once in your lifetime that you’re a Christian and why you’re a Christian” or “I’m going to give you a two minute-limit to share your opinions in this meeting, and no one gets to repeat points made previously.”

The power that pastors do have is to lead with genuine moral authority, and inspire others to do the same.

Here’s the thing: people like having the most attractive pastor. Some feel like their church is the best because they use the same strategic planning techniques used by organizational development professors or a social entrepreneurship think tank. While the church has much to learn from the world of business and other sectors, churches and their leaders do not get their authority from having the best model, making the most money, or selling the most products.

Churches are fundamentally different spaces. Churches do not look for the best, most highly qualified members. Churches are not looking for only the wealthy, the attractive, the successful, the most highly educated. Churches do not seek out only the perfect families. Churches look for those who seek or live with doubt. Churches are places that search for those who struggle with mental illness. Churches open their doors to felons. Churches work to ensure there is enough food on the tables of the members of their community. Churches understand we as human beings are connected to the lives of people halfway around the world, and we cannot ignore our own impact, economic and environmental, on others. Church leaders have the privilege of serving the wounded, the unpretty, the struggling. Church leaders can persuade people with the gospel and their own moral authority to live into a better way to be a community, one that is open to the whole people of God instead of exclusive to the well-put-together-who-never-have-any-problems people of God.

Consider what the world would be like if everyone led by the power of their moral authority, and not on the power vested in them by virtue of their positions. It is a lot more work.

We who belong to churches have a faith community that inspires us, and has the potential to elevate us to lead with moral courage and authority. Those of us working out there in the world are confronted with many leadership models in our local, state, and national governments. We see authority where we work and where we go to school. Church has the potential to offer an alternative leadership model, particularly to those regular church people serving in prominent positions in the public and private sectors.

Seminaries and divinity schools are not the places to go to learn command-and-control leadership, or how to terrorize your own staff. They are not primarily focused on skills-based education for creating the best programs or for learning aggressive expansion. Pastors who engage in that kind of leadership learn that somewhere else. Instead, these are spaces of formation for an alternative kind of leadership. Most of these leaders will be footnotes in history, instead of headlines.

The world needs alternatives. Theological education is one of those alternatives.

UntitledLaura Mariko Cheifetz is the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, one of the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Prior to joining PPC, she worked with The Fund for Theological Education and McCormick Theological Seminary. Laura is an ordained teaching elder in the PC (USA). She holds a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University, a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary, and a Master of Business Administration from North Park University. She blogs at and can be followed @lmcheifetz

Lee H2 copyLee Hinson-Hasty @leehh is coordinator for Theological Education and Seminary Relations and a lead staff person for the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Ordained in 1995, he has served as a campus minister and pastor in Virginia and as director of church relations at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina.  Hinson-Hasty actively engages in dialogue, study and initiatives that foster relationships and leadership development in the church and academy including on his the blog, “A More Expansive View: Encounters with Presbyterians and our Seminaries.”  A graduate of Wake Forest University (BA-History), Louisville Seminary (MDiv), and McCormick Theological Seminary (DMin), Hinson-Hasty is interested in leadership in a multicultural world, serves as Vice Chair of the Fund for Theological Education, is a member of Lectio Jubilate, and is married to the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty.  Elizabeth and Lee are parents of Garrison (13), Emme (7), and a four month old puppy, Basci.

Lighter on Our Feet into the Wide Open Arms of God

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Wendy Fletcher

painted cross copyWriting at the end of the 1960’s, Canadian author Pierre Burton observed that theological education, rather than serving as a vanguard which helped the rapidly changing church blaze a path to the future, functioned instead as a rearguard action that lagged behind the church sweeping up the pieces. Too often, in the immediately preceding decades, this has been all too true.

Of course I do believe that our seminaries and theological schools intended otherwise. However, the weight of the dual expectations of church and academy, so freighted with the commitment to a twentieth century professional model of clerical preparation, and a residual anticipation of the way church in the old world was, imagining itself at the centre of things, theological schools have lumbered.

Theological education for the future will need to be much lighter on its feet. If ever there was a day when its resources are needed in front of the change rather than behind it, that day is today.  Our context is one in which traditional models of Christian practice are in decline and one in which the Spirit of God appears to blowing manifold news forms of Christian practice everywhere on the ground of our culture. Only theological education which embraces this, not as crisis but as kairos – as the opportunity which God is giving us for faithful following in this generation – will thrive.

In this time of change, models of education are required that understand:

  • we are educating communities at the grassroots of church and  society for spiritual leadership and faith based discipleship rather than stand alone individual professionals;
  • learning which deepens spiritual practice – that practice which will keep us alive and able to scatter ourselves as seeds in hope of  God’s new day – is at least as important as the teaching of the classical academic disciplines;
  • we are preparing leaders to live a radically new missiology – one that understands that to live love rather than speak love in relating to this society where our  words of faith are increasingly not intelligible to our culture is key;
  • education that empowers us for faithful discipleship must be accessible to a broad swath of our people, which means it needs to be local, affordable and relevant in the context into which it presumes to speak.

Two things I know: this future will require risk; there is nowhere for us to fall in our risk-taking in faith, but into the wide-open arms of the mercy of God.

May we risk boldly in sure and certain hope of the resurrected life promised in God.

Fletcher, Wendy HeadshotWendy Fletcher is the professor of the History of Christianity at Vancouver School of Theology (VST), a multi-denominational graduate school located on the campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, where she has served for over 10 years. She previously held the position of principal and dean of VST. Prior to her appointment at UBC, the Rev. Dr. Fletcher served for 12 years as professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, Huron College.

For the past two decades Fletcher has worked in a variety of roles with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) of North America. She served for several years as a commissioner on the ATS Accreditation Commission, as an accreditation visitor and as a seminar leader on the subjects of leadership, conflict resolution and women in leadership. In addition to serving as a director and board member of various professional and academic societies, she is the author of numerous published works on women and Christianity, spirituality and religion and ethnicity, and First Nations Education.

Fletcher holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Western Ontario, a Master of Divinity degree from Huron College, and a Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael’s College.