Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

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

by Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

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

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

by Rick Young

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

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

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

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

The poem read…

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Field Guide Preview: Storytelling as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the fourth sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from another movement of the guide: storytelling as assessment.


Storytelling is central to the human experience. Without stories and those who tell them, our ability as humans to effectively build community and transmit culture would be nearly impossible. We depend on the power of stories to help us shape and structure our lives, both collectively and individually.

Stories help us understand where we came from. Stories help us discover where we’re going. Stories help us to connect with each other. Stories help us to make meaning of our lives amidst the looming complexity and uncertainty of existence. Stories help define us and set us apart. Stories weave us together in the inextricable web of mutuality that is human society and culture. Stories help us to truly know others and to be truly known ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, stories are how we come to know and experience the reality of God.

For these and many other reasons, the concept of story—the narration of events in the life of a person or the existence of a thing—has been central to the life of the church since the inception of Christianity. At the very heart of the gospel is the story of a God who loves the world. At the heart of Christianity is the story of Jesus Christ, who is the foundation of our faith. At the heart of Christian community is the story of how Christ died and yet lives, which binds us all together in love. Without question, Christians are people of story.

This long history of Christian story and storytelling isn’t just important to understanding who we are but it’s also pivotal to better communicating what we do and how we live as Christians. The art and practice of storytelling is vital to the work of cultivated ministry.

When we make cultivated ministry a priority, it becomes clear that not only do we need ways of gathering information about the effectiveness of our ministry, we must also learn to use that information to tell stories that matter: stories of impact and stories of transformation. Without these stories, we can collect all the data we want, but it won’t lead to the deep cultural and organizational adaptations we need to fulfill our mission in rapidly changing contexts.

Grounding our cultivated ministry work in both biblical and communal stories better enables faith communities to frame the context of their assessments and evaluations by telling the broader narrative of where we have been, where we are, and where we want to go.

As we seek to increase the fruitfulness of our programs and ministries we can incorporate storytelling at every step of the process. If we cultivate stories and tell them to one another as we cast our vision, use stories to invite others to join our plans and projects, reflect on the implementation of our ideas through story, and tell those stories when we evaluate our work, we will create opportunities for greater ownership and deeper connection for every ministry participant and stakeholder.

Telling Stories That Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shawna Bowman

Three years ago my congregation began the process of considering what God was calling us to next. Several years had passed since we had been through a major transformation: merging two congregations, closing and selling buildings, saying goodbye to faithful leaders and oversized structures, and starting a new congregation called Friendship Presbyterian Church. In the years since this new beginning, Friendship had fostered a deep sense of community, a thirst for justice, and an attitude of experimentation. Having been through such a radical transition, our capacity for risk was high and our faith that God would continue to guide us was strong.

We knew we needed to think about big questions like space and location as it related to our vision for a deeper connection to the communities we serve and the organizations we partner with. So we hired a consultant. And she came. And the first question she asked my people was: why do you come here?

Oh my goodness, their answers made my heart so happy. They said they came because this is where they are fed. They told stories about being stretched and engaged and invited to participate. They told stories about how they can be their whole selves here, about getting their hands dirty doing good work, about how this space has been a transformative one where they’ve experienced healing and God in new ways. Stories about how this is where they’ve begun to articulate a faith that makes sense, that holds up in the midst of conflict, fear, and doubt. Stories about how they can bring their family, no matter their needs, and feel welcome.

The consultant said, “Wow, you’ve got an amazing thing going here. Outside of these walls, who do you tell these stories to?”

And my people looked at one another, and they looked at the consultant and they said, “No one.”

My people were experiencing enriching worship, transformative conversations about their faith, and growth in their hunger for justice in the world but they did not have the words to articulate this outside the walls of our community. They did not have practice telling stories about their lives that connected to their faith. They did not know where to begin when it came to talking about matters of faith and their spiritual life because we don’t tell stories like that in the kiddo drop off at school or around the break table at work. We don’t often hear or tell stories about how God is working in our lives, softening our hearts or healing old wounds or whispering in our ears because these are brave and vulnerable and mystical stories and we’re way more comfortable with conversations about the weather than risking these revealing stories with friends and strangers.

If we only tell these stories inside our worship spaces and never outside, how can we expect to deepen our relationships with our neighbors? How can we expect to know and be known by organizations we hope to partner with? How can we share the transformative power of our little community if we don’t tell our stories?

And so we began to practice. We began by learning the art of storytelling, and we began to practice on one another in worship. During a series on “Meals With Jesus.” we told stories about our own kitchen tables. We brought place settings and table cloths from our homes and set the communion table each week and told stories about family meals, awkward meals, and last meals. We told stories about gifts during Advent and stories about letting go during Lent.

We also began to tell stories at session meetings that would inform our decision making and mission priorities. When we decide to try new forms of worship, we added a storytelling component to our evaluation process. Instead of simply asking folks what they liked and didn’t like after trying new forms of worship, we gathered together as community and we told stories. We told stories about what we stretched us and what challenged us, about parts of worship that gave us comfort and where we found ourselves disconnected. Hearing one another’s stories deepened our compassion and understanding for one another. It changed worship into the communal experience it’s meant to be, rather than a commodity for each individual.

When we came together to work on the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, we wanted to infuse the process with storytelling. We know we can collect all the data we want, but if we don’t know how to make sense of it or tell the stories of what it means, of how our ministries and mission are having impact, then the data doesn’t do us very much good. As you consider the stories that shape your communities and the lives of your participants you might ask these questions:

What are the stories that get told most often about your community?

Are they true? Are they encouraging or discouraging?

Who gets to tell them?

What are our stories of risk and failure?

What are our stories of resilience and our stories of change and transformation?

Many of our communities need practice in telling stories that matter. The good news is that many of us are hungry to hear and tell stories. We just need practice. Our Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry will include a storytelling process and examples from congregations. Our hope is that you will uncover these stories in your communities and that they will help shape your mission and vision. Even more importantly, we hope these stories will feed you when you’re in the midst of change and transformation.


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago and co-founder of Creation Lab, an art collective and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality and prophetic imagination. 

The Surprising Benefit of Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Casey Thompson

Once in first grade, my teacher asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we were older. Cindy said a fireman; Mark answered a teacher; Stephanie wanted to be a princess (bless her heart, it seems more unlikely the older we get). Then our teacher turned to me, “Casey, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

I said, “I’d like to spend my life propping up an institution on life support, squeezing out the last bits of life from it so that it can continue to over-serve the wealthy and under-serve the poor. In short, Ms. Cunningham, I’d like to be a pastor!”

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Perhaps you were as well. It would explain why the church of Jesus Christ seems to have a problem with cynicism now. Cynicism happens when our hopefulness deflates, and it seems to me much of the church’s hopefulness has deflated. We’re wondering how to do ministry when the tested, traditional methods don’t work anymore — or when those methods actively make things worse. We’re wondering how to keep this marvelous institution alive that introduced us to the very thing we love most in life. As it gets harder to do, we get more cynical.

I too am prone to cynicism, but I love pastors (most of us) and elders (more of you) and congregants (nearly all of them). I don’t want the church to lose hope.

So I agreed to try and help as I could. I joined the Cultivating Ministry team. We were called together to consider new ways of evaluating ministry, ways that considered numbers and storytelling, ways forward focused on theology and new learnings.

What I have discovered in my time working with this group is that there is an unexpected benefit to evaluation. Evaluation is not just a way to gauge the effectiveness of a ministry so that it might be tweaked toward perfection. Evaluation actually subverts the forms of our ministry. It actually returns us to the theological question at the heart of vocation, a question so fundamental that we start asking first graders so they’ll have enough practice answering it by the time it becomes pressing for them: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” How do you want to spend your time?

My genuine answer is that I want to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want people to encounter the gentle spirit that canopies the world, the shelter that is also the source of our being, and the incarnation of that spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. I want people to know of his love for the world and of his vision of justice and peace. I want people to know there is grace for our failures and consolation for our grief. I want people to know they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit is with them.

When I’m not re-addressing these fundamental questions I find that I drift from trying to serve the gospel to simply managing a slow decline of the mainline’s flavor of the church, staving off social trends with my own work and creativity — instead of the generative work of Christ. “We’ll try it this way this year,” I say. Or if there is less energy: “It was good enough last year. Just move on and get the sermon done.”

I’m going to lose the fight against the slow marginalization of the church in the United States. I think most of us know that now. It’s like trying to sell Blackberries in an iPhone world. It doesn’t fit anymore — even if there’s a dedicated group of users.

But serving the gospel? Yes. I know that serving the gospel is a worthy endeavor even if I fail at it.

Evaluation returns me to the core of why we do what we do in serving the gospel. Evaluation isn’t simply a tool to make your Wednesday night fellowship group run smoother, your Sunday school class more topical, or your Christmas Bazaar better than the Methodist church’s down the street. Evaluation asks why it’s important in the first place. It’s a reminder that the Wednesday night fellowship group helped a couple persevere through a cancer diagnosis for their daughter. It’s the reminder that the Sunday school class birthed a tutoring ministry that helped to close the achievement gap in the local school. It’s a reminder that the Christmas Bazaar raises funds for a church camp where pre-teens fall in love with God in a way that haunts them and enlivens them for the rest of their lives.

The surprising benefit of evaluation is that it prompts us to return to why we spend our lives how we spend them. In that, we see how God works through us and in us and we find hope for a future.

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.


Casey Thompson is pastor of Wayne Presbyterian church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

Field Guide Preview: Mutual Accountability as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the third sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the second movement of the guide: mutual accountability as assessment.


Of course, we understand that the harvest is ultimately in God’s hands. Yet we also know that even though the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few.[i] Jesus nurtured a culture of utmost accountability. He demonstrated relational power, clarity of purpose, and giving of himself fully in joy, love, and grace. We may not be able to attain that level of accountability, but we can lift that up as our guide as we seek to bear fruit that will last in our particular ministry contexts. To do that, creating a pattern and discipline of mutual accountability is essential.

Mutual accountability is not driving by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there, combing through last year’s itemized spending reports to find where someone made a mistake, or sending out a bunch of surveys or paying a consultant to tell you what is and is not working about your ministry.

If mutual accountability is present, ministry will feel:

  1. Transparent

Participants in the ministry can talk about what they are trying to do and are on the same page. They are upfront about who is involved and who is not. They make realistic goals and plan to be in communication. They are honest with each other when something could be improved or when a ministry or event does not meet expectations. This is handled without blame but also without avoidance.

  1. Energizing

Participants are able to articulate in real time what they seek to achieve. They become more future-oriented than backward-looking. The past is understood a learning tool. Failures are shared. Successes are celebrated. Little time and energy is devoted to those who want to complain but do not want to participate in the ministry’s improvement. Participants are honest about their energy level and make space for different reactions to the same program or event based on how different human beings are wired.

  1. Relational

Participants come to feel connected with God and with each other. They don’t dread responding to emails or attending meetings because they have care for the others involved beyond simply the short-term activities of the project. They spend time in each meeting finding out more about the passions, gifts, and animating stories of the people around them. They hear about the impact of their actions through stories of those impacted.

  1. Empowering

The work becomes transcendent and participants offer grace to one another when a tough season befalls someone in the group. There is less talk about “filling the slots” or “finding new blood.” There is more talk about building leaders and inviting someone into the work because of their particular story and how that generates appetite for the work. People don’t micro-manage each other because they have respect for each other’s commitment and can freely talk about issues as they arise. People don’t fade off or burn out because they are serving in an area where they are known and the work engages their primary areas of interest.

[i] Matthew 9:37

Building Evaluative Muscles

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

Two years ago at our annual session retreat, congregational leaders at Fourth Presbyterian Church discerned God was calling us to make discipleship a priority in the life and mission of our particular congregation. We decided it was time to intentionally focus on nurturing and growing our sense of God’s claim on our lives and life together, as well as our ability to articulate the difference that claim made in our lives. As a congregation, we have always felt strongly called to work for God’s justice and compassion in the world, but we have not always been able to articulate why. The session decided it was time to help all of us give words as to why we did what we did. It was time to help our folks be able to describe what made us, as a congregation, different from other non-profit agencies who did similar community outreach work. We felt God was challenging us to work on a deeper sense of discipleship.

As we continued to wrestle with what that meant (including trying to define discipleship!), we began to get stuck on how we would know if we were making progress. What were the metrics we could use to see if we were actually doing what we said we felt called to do? We knew that we could not just use the church’s operating budget or our worship attendance numbers to tell us if the discipleship priority was taking hold. Both financial health and attendance statistics provide useful data, but neither thing captures “success” – at least not in terms of ministry. And yet, those kinds of quantitative metrics were all we had.  

I was always reminded of this point whenever elders who had rolled off session would want to hear how things were going. “How are we doing with our discipleship priority?” they would ask. “Are you seeing some shifts occur?” Being a preacher, I always came up with something to say, but I also felt inadequate to describe the progress I saw taking place. I had a variety of anecdotes I could tell them, in which I could describe how I saw our baptisms shining brightly, but I did not know if that “counted,” in terms of metrics… until NEXT Church launched the Cultivated Ministry project.

Our session took the Cultivated Ministry method out for a spin this past June at our last annual retreat. I will admit it was a little rocky in the beginning. Some of my folks needed to be convinced that the traditional ways of measuring healthy ministry via budgets and attendance were actually meant to be inputs rather than outputs. In other words, a church’s financial resources and people resources are means to an end and not the “end” itself (hint—the end is God’s complete reconciliation of the cosmos). It is a shift to recognize that people’s stories of transformation are just as valid as how many people showed up. We have been counting for so long that other ways of describing progress can feel suspicious or threatening. However, the more we practiced broadening our vision as to what/how to measure “successful” ministry, the more it began to feel right. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten started.

Our next steps will be to keep practicing the Cultivated Ministry method with small, well-defined ministry programs. It is still difficult to measure how we are doing regarding deepening our discipleship, but we can become more adept at these new metrics if we start with smaller tasks. For example, we can use this method to see how our new family neighborhood small groups are working  Or we could use this method to look at a new mission trip. Or we could use this method to evaluate our session meetings or our trustee meetings. There are a myriad of different ways we could implement Cultivated Ministry metrics as we build our evaluative muscles.  

I am thankful for the group who gave this work all of their time, energy, imagination, and love. I get excited to imagine how this different way of measuring healthy ministry might take root in the congregation I serve. It feels faithful and interesting. And I believe it has the potential to keep us from getting too comfortable or stagnant. The practice of Cultivated Ministry will help us grow deeper in our discipleship and more articulate about how our faith impacts our life. We are going to keep working at it, undoubtedly messing up and trying again, as we try to figure out how to scale it for our different ministries and mission. I hope other congregations will join us in the experimenting!


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

A Culture of Accountability

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Andrew Foster Connors

We kicked a pastor out of our community organizing group not too long ago. Technically, he chose to leave. He was in the middle of lecturing the rest of the clergy on what needed to happen. One of our seasoned leaders called him on it. “I’m asking you what are you going to do about it.” The pastor equivocated, returning to his pontifications. Again, the leader interrupted him. “We know what you think about the problem. My question is how many people are you going to bring from your congregation so you can turn your thoughts into action and actually change the situation instead of just whining about it.” I was uncomfortable in the tension, but I confess I was glad that he got up and walked out. I have little patience for people who do not want to be held accountable. There’s too much important work to do to spend our precious time and energy when people want to be “right” more than they want real change.

Accountability is one of the most challenging practices for the church and certainly for pastors. Pastors typically want people to like us and we are often better at caring for people’s feelings than we are at developing them into disciples of Jesus. I know from personal experience that I sometimes enable bad behavior in the name of pastoral care. But accountability is not just the responsibility of a pastor alone. I’ve come to see it function best not so much as a practice, but as a culture.

When I first got involved in community organizing, I developed a relationship with an organizer who met with me monthly to discuss my goals. The first difficult part of the work was moving from amorphous goals like “change our culture of leadership” to “meet individually with all Session members over the next six weeks.” Big goals are fine, he encouraged me, but you have to break them down so I can hold you accountable to them. Of course, if those smaller goals fail to produce the larger outcomes, that’s okay, we can adjust. There’s no reason to be afraid to fail. But you have to be held accountable to your decisions.

The second difficult part was showing him my calendar. “Why do you have to see my calendar?” I asked him. “This is my calendar. Nobody gets to see it.” “Don’t waste my time,” he told me. “If you tell me these are your top three goals for your congregation, I’m going to make sure you are spending your time on them.” Sorting through the calendar, the organizer helped me see that in order to focus my time, I’d have to let go of some other things.

At its root level, accountability is simply the practice of naming our work and aligning our time with what we’ve said is most important. When we fail to run our calendars, they run us. This is as true for the congregation as it is for pastors. Leadership in the church is about identifying leaders who are willing to do this work. Together they discern God’s direction, naming the work and following through on it. The culture of accountability that is built over time attracts new leaders who want to be held accountable to meeting the goals they set for themselves and dissuades “positional holders” who do not.

I realized that culture had taken shape in my own congregation when an elder threatened the Session to either take a particular action or he would resign. I felt the urge to “manage” the situation. Before I could, a ruling elder said kindly, but directly, “you have raised really important considerations that deserve careful attention, but this is not the way we relate to each other.” Others chimed in to remind him what we had named as our work and what we had discerned was not our work. He resigned from the Session. The best accountability the church can deliver is public, transparent and relational. We hold each other accountable.

This culture makes what is often the dreaded annual review meaningful and spite-free. Instead of a few lay people giving their personal opinions about what they like and don’t like about the pastor’s leadership, they are asking questions that are aligned with what the Session has said is the work of the church. “Is our pastor’s time aligned with our church’s goals?” is a much more helpful question than “do I personally like how she spends her time?” More importantly, this culture expands the annual review beyond that of the pastor to the leaders themselves. “Did we achieve the goal we set for our congregation in 2017?” “What did we learn from our successes and our failures?”

I’ve learned through the years that I function best with colleagues (pastors and lay leaders alike) who are holding me accountable to the claims and call of the gospel. That means spending time with other leaders who I respect and who are willing to be held accountable and willing to hold others accountable. In includes learning from leaders across the usual lines of denomination, race, and ideology. And it means learning from leaders who are more experienced as well as less experienced than me. Together we flesh out the specific places where the Gospel is calling us so that we can grow in our commitment to Christ and keep awake to God’s dynamic movement and mission in our own contexts.


Andrew Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He serves on the NEXT Church strategy team and is a co-chair in BUILD, a community organizing group in Baltimore.

Field Guide Preview: Theology as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the second sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the first movement of the guide: theology as assessment.


It is a theological fallacy for Christians to think of ourselves as victims of post-Christendom cultural shifts beyond our control. It is a lack of spiritual imagination to act as if our faith communities and organizations are without strength or power in the world. It is a misunderstanding of our own history to assume that we are facing unprecedented challenges. The realities of the first-century Roman Empire — which witnessed the exponential growth of the early church — were no less hostile to the way of Jesus than the realities of twenty-first-century North America.[i] In both contexts, the Christian mission remains the same. Now, as then, followers of Jesus are commissioned to make new followers of Jesus and participate in the emergence of what he called God’s kingdom. Jesus was committed to this mission and held his disciples accountable to his radical vision of individuals and societies transformed.

As members of numerically declining denominations, mainline Protestants often find ourselves caught between a false polarity. On the one hand, we long for our culture’s idolatrous notion of success. According to this way of thinking, if you aren’t experiencing significant growth you are dying. Maintaining the status quo is stagnation. Numbers tell the story.

On the other hand, church leaders often take solace in a notion of faithfulness, which downplays numbers in favor of the integrity of our devotion, social witness, and service to others. According to this way of thinking, God is pleased so long as we faithfully do what we have always done, regardless of its effectiveness.

Rather than either of these inclinations, Jesus purposely calls us to bear fruit.[ii] This metaphor evokes consideration of both quantity and quality. Neither a bountiful yield of mediocre produce nor a small yield of sweet fruit are ultimately satisfying. Those charged with bearing fruit — especially fruit that will last — must be concerned with the quantity and quality of their product. Cultivated ministry is therefore a commitment to fruitfulness, which attends not only to the faithfulness of our endeavors, but also to the outputs and meaningful impact of our work.

Cultivated ministry is also a reorientation to the missional goal of kingdom growth. It is noteworthy that Jesus only mentions “church” twice in the New Testament. Both instances are oblique references in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18 and 18:17) and may in fact be editorial additions. By contrast, throughout his ministry Jesus was primarily concerned with the emergence of God’s kingdom. Consider, for example, the first words attributed to Jesus in the first of our gospels to be written down: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[iii] Jesus’ ministry was urgent. Jesus’ ministry was rooted in the here and now. Jesus’ ministry was about the imminent manifestation of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry was about change and transformation. Jesus’ ministry was — and is — good news for a world all too familiar with bad news.

[i] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements (2nd edition; Brazos Press, 2016).

[ii] Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8; John 15:8, 16

[iii] Mark 1:15, CEB.

Moving Beyond Sexy Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Billy Honor

“Make it sexy!” I hear these three words whispering in my brain every time I’m planning anything pertaining to ministry. It doesn’t matter if I’m planning a bible study, sermon series, worship experience, service project, or leadership meeting, somewhere along the way I’m going to ask myself the question: is this sexy? I know it may seem odd to think about ministry in this way but I’ve come to understand that making ministry sexy is one of the most pervasive ways ministry is practiced today.

Those who pay close attention to the contemporary Christian landscape can attest that a goodly number of churches and ministry facilitators spend a significant amount of time thinking about whether their ministry activities are sexy, i.e. attractive and appealing. One of the ways this is clearly seen is among the churches that call themselves “seeker sensitive.” These are congregations and faith communities that are unapologetically invested in making their activities attractional and alluring to those they are trying to reach.

Over the last couple decades, this attractional approach to ministry has become more wide-spread than many want to admit. Though most churches would never describe themselves as seeker sensitive, the fact is most church leaders are constantly wrestling with how they can make their ministries more compelling.

On a personal level, in my own ministry development, I can admit that I didn’t always have this mentality. In fact, I distinctly remember when and where I learned it. It was during my time serving as an intern at a megachurch while I was in seminary. We would have staff meetings once a week where the leaders and department heads were expected to report their upcoming plans and projections. As we’d go around the table, it was not uncommon for the executive pastor to ask someone in response to their plans, “but it is sexy?” This was her not so subtle way of asking: will this plan bring out big numbers? Will it create mass community appeal? Will it look like a success?

Rethinking Ministry as Sexy

Initially, I thought this was a very effective way to lead and supervise – especially given the fact that most of what I’d seen growing up in a very large congregation gave me the impression that ministry effectiveness is about the numbers. However, as I grew and became more experienced as a ministry leader, I started to become ambivalent and increasingly weary with the “sexy ministry” approach.

I can vividly remember how I felt when I started pastoring and I realized that most of the shortcomings of our church could be mitigated by the fact that we had people in seats and money coming into the accounts. Whenever I’d fill out our annual denominational assessment forms, I’d get this unsettling feeling about having to deal with a report that was so numbers-driven. Each year, the same questions. How many people were baptized? How many people made a profession of faith? How members are active? How many participated in Christian education? How much is the yearly budget?

Quickly it became apparent to me that our numbers (though consistently growing and exceeding our projections) did not tell the most important story of our congregation. From my viewpoint, the more significant story was how we as a church were faithfully participating in the Spirit’s movement in the world and this was a story that could not be told by numbers alone. Rather it had to be told by a narrative articulation of how the Divine is moving in the lives of those who share in the church’s ministry.

Eventually I transitioned from pastoring that church to accept a call to organize a new urban church. Part of my reason for choosing to do this was my desire to shape a ministry from the inception that assessed church vitality by its faithfulness to the stated mission and not merely by the numbers.

A Different Way of Assessing Ministry

Now, after almost two years as a church planter, though I still think about how to make ministry sexy, this is far from my primary concern. To be sure, we still count the numbers, but our primary focus is whether we as a faith community look like our stated core values. In other words, no matter our congregational statistics, if we look and function like our mission statement, then we are being faithful.

Leading a new congregation with this approach has been refreshing – but it’s also been very challenging. There have been times when I felt like we were just spinning our wheels without any clear measurement of our work together. This is why I’m so thankful that I was asked to participate in the NEXT Church think tank on ministry metrics. It has been a great opportunity to consider new models of assessment that make faithfulness to God’s mission in the world the primary concern. It’s also been a great way for me to seriously reflect on how our church can be more intentional about understanding the ways our activities contribute to the Spirit’s work.

In the days ahead, our think tank will have the opportunity to take our work public. I’m excited about this because I know it’s desperately needed. Very often the conversation around the mainline church is saturated with narratives of decline but I’m hopeful new insights on church vitality and “cultivated ministry” practice can help shift the conversation.

If nothing else, I’m hopeful this will provide an opportunity for churches and ministry leaders to slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.


Billy Michael Honor is a minister, public scholar, and social critic who writes and speaks about issues in faith and culture. He is also an ordained PC(USA) minister and the founding pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta.