The Business of Making Active Disciples

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Laura Cheifetz is curating a series on leadership development. These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shelley Donaldson

What does leadership development in the church look like to me?

In the fall of 2001, a couple of pastor-mentor-friends convinced me I should work for the Calvin Center just outside of Atlanta, GA. I liked kids and I loved being outside. I was also going through a rough patch with my faith and just happened to be looking for a job while going to college. I needed a paycheck, so I signed up. Looking back now, I realize that at no point would anyone ever have been able to explain to me the 9+ years of leadership development that I would undergo and that would transform how I see the world and interact with God’s creation. I’ve tried really hard to carry these skills with me throughout my ministry since and use them to inform my decision making.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you can’t have good leadership if you aren’t someone who is helping to develop new leaders. Constantly. It’s part of God’s big hamster wheel that we should all find ourselves on. I realized I was running on that wheel after becoming an associate camp director and eventually a solo director where I was hiring college students and helping to create an atmosphere of nurturing new leaders. Good leadership and leadership development keeps going. You can’t just hone your own leadership abilities and be a true leader without being able to share with and impart that leadership onto others because that’s not how the gospel would do it.

I know it’s cliché, but in Matthew 28 we get our fundamental instructions for leadership development: to go and make disciples. When Jesus tells his followers to make disciples, it’s not only to make the world believe, but to believe and act on that belief. Which means, if we are to make disciples, then we’re meant to make active disciples who in turn go on to make more active disciples and so on. We are meant to make leaders who go on to make other leaders and so on. We are meant to keep God’s hamster wheel spinning and we should all be on it in some shape, form or fashion.

Over the years, the idea of leadership development has become something of a hot topic in the church. When I attend conferences or large gatherings, I often hear of special leadership events that a particular event or group is hosting, most often it’s an invite-only event. If your invite-only event is one that is intentional about bringing to the table people who have typically been left in the margins when it comes to leadership, then great. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Most of the time, we see the same groups or individuals at these events and we see the same people leading them. It’s frustrating and its exclusive.

Sure, some really good leadership development is done hosting intentional workshops for a hand-picked, select group of people. But the best leadership development happens when we figure out how to embrace God’s hamster wheel and start developing our leaders (aka disciples) who will bring others onto the wheel, not just the few deemed worthy or because they know the right person with some sway. I’m talking moving beyond the pulpit and chancels and moving into the pews and out into the streets.

Here’s the secret that we don’t want to talk about when it comes to leadership development in the church: like so many other parts of our world, you have to have a foot in the door to be a part of leadership and to get that development. And to get your foot in the door often requires an access to privilege and power that, let’s be honest, we don’t often like to share or give up. We’ve essentially separated making active disciples and developing leaders. And we wonder why the church is shrinking?

I had privilege that helped get me in the doors I needed to walk through to get good leadership development. I wasn’t looking to develop my leadership skills, but I did because of others. I was a young white woman from the suburbs, I had good people looking out for me, and my boss (who turned out to be a close friend for life) was one heck of a mentor who was never afraid to call me out when I did something wrong, tell me no when I’d always heard yes, and refuse to coddle me when I failed and acted immature about it. The leadership development I got from my time at the Calvin Center didn’t just help to create a leader in the church, it helped to create an active disciple. It did that for me and so many others because they weren’t interested in being selective, they were interested in developing each person who walked through those cabin doors because they were in the business of keeping that hamster wheel running and making active disciples to run it.

My leadership development came, in many parts, because of my own privilege. Sure, I was smart, likeable, and had a lot of energy for life and God’s church, I still do. But, there were people who were able to help place me in a position where I could blossom. Which is why the skills I developed in leadership are at the core of who I am, because I can’t take any of it for granted. I was introduced to people who helped shape who I am and my abilities, and I sincerely hope that we can change that model from getting leadership development for those with privilege or those with access, to making sure it’s available to all God’s people, especially the ones with little to no access.

We have to be in the business of making active disciples of everyone, not just the select. Then we’ll be in the business of leadership development that will keep that hamster wheel spinning. It won’t just affect the church, but it will affect the world. The church should be at the forefront of leadership development, it should be at the core of who we are. Which means it can’t be exclusive but intentionally open to everyone. Change the exclusive invites from a “+1” to a “bring all your friends and some random folks as well with you.” Leadership development shouldn’t be for the ones that those in places of power deem worthy, but for those whom God has deemed worthy.


Shelley Donaldson is a candidate for ordained ministry in the PCUSA. She works in Chicago at Fourth Presbyterian Church working with youth and leading missions to Cuba. She is a contributing story writer for WJK’s new book Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible, as well as the Youth Cartel’s 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers. She is also a founding member of Creation Lab. You can find her work on her blog, The Travelling Theologian: Traveling with 2 L’s Because I Can.

Hidden Leaders

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Laura Cheifetz is curating a series on leadership development. These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Richard Williams

In reflecting on how we church folk often think about leadership, it seems we take a pretty singular approach. Considering movie analogies, we seem to think more “The Right Stuff”, and less “Hidden Figures.” We are captivated by the myth of the single, solitary, decisive leader. Our imaginations are much less developed when we try to picture leadership not as a single crown, but rather as a community’s effort — mutual and shared at its foundation.

Photo from Young Adult Volunteer Facebook page

The Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program lists leadership development as a core tenet. We encourage participants and staff alike to imagine a wider view of the concept in their year of service. Central in the program’s thinking is a reliance on the Reformed tradition’s insistence that every person is called to serve Christ in world. In this one-year opportunity for young adults to serve alongside local organizations, both in the US and around the world, we aim to meet every young adult where they are in their capacity to be a faithful leader, but to leave none of them in the same place by year’s end. We work to see all of them move, grow, and develop, knowing that process will be different for each volunteer; as different as each of their calls.

Our goals for leadership development results in an intentional shift from focusing solely on the “typical” candidate that meet our society’s unexamined personality markers of stature, outspokenness, and confidence, as well as the identity biases of race, class, and gender and sexuality. Our program’s internal shorthand is that we aren’t only about making the sharpest pencils in the box sharper, but about finding a way for all the pencils in the box to be sharpened into their full potential. While we have all been shaped by images of leadership that are mainly white male dominant, as people of faith we must recognize and embrace different forms of leadership, and then work to change our systems to nurture, develop, call, and support them.
This type of leadership development results in inviting and preparing for a broad section of people to consider engaging in faithful service and leadership development. This makes our work both exciting and timely.

Leadership development is not a quick fix, with results you can see in a few hours or a few months’ time. This is very different than what we are used to seeing, particularly in today’s (insert like, star, crying emoji here) social media culture. Leadership development is on a generational timescale, not the ‘what’s trending’ timescale. A colleague of mine in another faith-based service program shares that they really only look to measure the ‘outcomes’ of their program five years after a participant ended their service. As programs and institutions that are involved in shaping leadership for our church and world (committees on preparation for ministry, seminaries, local congregations, and programs like YAV) we all must be intentional in looking for the long term impact of our work, because these leaders will be responsible for following God’s call and leading our church after most of us reading this blog post are long gone.

I find no greater satisfaction than working with young adults as they continue to seek faithful ways to grow in leadership for our church and our world. As a disillusioned GenXer, I am constantly surprised by how much my work with rising leaders in the YAV program gives me hope and confidence in God’s future. It will be different than where we are right now — thanks be to God. And it will be richer in God’s possibilities — thanks be to God.


Richard Williams is the coordinator of the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer Program, a faith-based year-long service experience. He served as a YAV in the Philippines and in Nashville, TN. Richard has served in congregational ministry, campus ministry, and most recently as a Mission coworker in Colombia, South America. Richard is married to Mamie Broadhurst (also a YAV alum!) and lives in Louisville, KY, with their daughter. An aspiring biker, he is always looking to find more ways to make trips on two wheels instead of four.

Leadership Forged Through Conference Planning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Laura Cheifetz is curating a series on leadership development. These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Carol Steele

Confession: I am a perfectionist who likes to be in control. I am a “one” on the Enneagram and an ENTJ (emphasis on J) on the Myers-Briggs. I recognize the shortcomings of these describing tools, but I also admit they describe me pretty well.

For me, comfort is derived by creating order (laundry folding, anyone?), poring over details, sleeping on a decision, or hashing out a word choice with people who know more than I do. I feel good when I know that a worship liturgy has been discussed by a focused group of diverse individuals who weren’t under a great deal of time pressure and were free from distraction. I like when everyone around the table has time to think, question, deliberate, and arrive at a (fully proof-read) destination.

So what am I doing working with youth conference planning teams of volunteers who have never met one another, will only ever work on a single project, and are beset by distance, deadlines, and curveballs? Losing my mind, sometimes.

But more often, I am in wonder: at the bonds formed when strangers share a common task; at the teamwork undertaken by adults and youth working as partners; at the faith built when a small group concentrates on how best to create space for their peers to grow in faith.

Photo by Daniel Killilea

So when the words on the screen during their presentation contain a stray comma (or worse); when a discussion requires extra time because the trust required is being built as we go; when the microphone doesn’t come on at precisely the right second because the person operating it just finished exams and is learning their first “real” job; I take a minute and think about the lessons being absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, by everyone, including me, who is taking part in this task.

I believe that along with faith, leadership is being forged as conferences are planned by volunteers and executed by collegiate staff, and that the lessons imparted — even as words slip through misspelled — bear fruit in the church of Jesus Christ and beyond.

Here are a few things you can learn in a summer of working on conferences in Montreat (and also in Mo Ranch, at Massannetta, and Presbyterian Youth Triennium, among others):

  • Way more often than not, leadership involves creating the space for someone who is not you to shine. Leadership is 99% behind the scenes.
  • When that person shines, they will receive 100% of the credit for everything that went well.
  • When things go wrong, it will feel like the blame is all on you, whether it is or not.
  • Something that you thought was well intentioned and fully prepared will, in fact, contain a flaw. That flaw will be pointed out, and therein lies an opportunity to learn, and to avoid that particular mistake in the future.
  • When there’s too much communication behind the scenes, the worst thing that can happen is: nothing. When there is not enough communication behind the scenes, he worst thing that can happen is: everything.
  • Communicating with people face-to-face is hard. Being vulnerable and taking responsibility for mistakes is hard. Getting over it when you make a mistake, and not making yourself the center of things, takes work, and it’s necessary.
  • When we worship God is the audience; the congregation the actors; and the leaders the stagehands (thanks, Kierkegaard).
  • Assume nothing and take the initiative.

To be sure, these same leadership lessons can be picked up in other places. What I get to witness as teams choose a conference theme or plan a recreation event is learning that takes place across generations, theological viewpoints, and a host of other differences, and in an environment where leaders young and old are encouraged to lean on one another as they ask what any of this has to do with following Christ.

As leaders emerge, youth and adults alike are more comfortable putting words to their faith experiences, more confident in their own ability to made decisions and take initiative, and happier in their own skins, having been affirmed in the knowledge that their gifts are actually, really, truly there, bestowed by God.

If you know someone — youth, college student, or adult — who wants to learn leadership in an environment that builds community and expands faith, encourage them to check out our denomination’s camp and conference centers. We’re doing it all the time, behind the scenes.


Carol Steele is vice president for program at Montreat Conference Center, where she has worked with over 20 volunteer conference planning teams and enough years’ worth of collegiate summer staff to make her feel pretty solidly middle aged. Before working in Montreat, she received an MDiv/MACE from Union Presbyterian Seminary and worked on Capitol Hill answering constituent mail.

Leadership: Our Faith Depends On It

by Laura Cheifetz

I don’t know if we can blame this on American individualism, white Christianity, or a misunderstanding of what Jesus did and how he did it. We have a habit of thinking single leaders will save us. Whether it’s deciding that the election of an African American stated clerk represents a turning point and then sitting back and waiting for change to happen (so what I’m saying is y’all better be showing up and doing your own work instead of waiting for the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson to magically transform the church by his lonesome). Or that an out gay Latino heading up PMA will be such an important change for the church (represents a change? Yes. WAS the change? That’s not how change works.). Or that hiring a charismatic white under-40 pastor will do for the congregation what the congregation has not been able to do for itself.

We are not a church of individual leaders fixing things. I mean, sometimes we think we are, but that’s not how we are set up. It is not how we flourish. It is not how we get things done.

Which leads me to the matter of leadership development.

We can’t, in fact, neglect leadership development in a church with no bishops. And we can’t focus leadership development only on the conventional choice (the young, the male, the outspoken). We need to develop everyone. You never know when you need someone to organize a group of people to march in a parade, corral knitters to make hats for preemies, or arrange the food pantry.

I hate being the youngest in the room; by the time I was in my mid-30s, I realized it is a chronic issue in many church circles. It’s a sign that we aren’t doing our job to find and cultivate leaders and make leadership development opportunities accessible. That’s not true anymore; I’m the second oldest on staff at my organization. I am delighted I can play my true heart’s role: grumpy older lady who knows some things. Every day is an exercise in leadership development.

That’s what church should be. A daily exercise in leadership development. The story of our faith in Scripture lays out a myriad of prophets, common folk getting things done, a community of people following Jesus and sharing the good news, scrappy early churches. We need people with the capacity to show up after their day (or night) jobs and be leaders. Our faith literally depends upon it.

This series of blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons.

Here is the lesson I offer.

Leadership development is training people up to love God, love neighbor, and have the strength to withstand being uncomfortable. You know what’s uncomfortable, at least at first? Difficult conversations. Leading Bible study. Talking with strangers. Speaking in front of others. Marching past counter-protestors. Antiracism work. Guiding a community of faith to learn more about and be inclusive of LGBTQ people. Being in a different cultural context. Learning new skills. Engaging in a community that is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating. Integrating people with intellectual disabilities in worship for the first time. Visiting people in prisons and detention centers. Being in community with people who live with addiction.

You know, being the church.

Church should be uncomfortable. Church should develop leaders.

Go and do likewise.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Deputy Director of Systems and Sustainability at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). Prior to that, she served as Vice President for Church and Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, at the Forum for Theological Exploration, and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She and her partner live in Decatur, GA. If you were to be stranded in Atlanta, you could call them for a night on the couch, craft cocktails, a meal, lively discussion on politics or race or religion or whatever else we aren’t supposed to discuss, and dog snuggles.

The Power of Coaching

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Tara Spuhler McCabe

Way way back, there was a skit on SNL with a character looking into the mirror with the mantra: I am good enough, I am smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.

I laughed so hard because it was silly AND it was true! Today, we have an updated version of the truth we can laugh about and recognize in our faith: You are creative, resourceful, and whole! We all are. Creative Resourceful and Whole, CRW, is the foundational mantra for the coaching practice.

CRW is one of the many ways I recognize we are powered through the Spirit. Remember your baptism? Or someone telling you about your baptism? God claims you and blesses you! Yet we constantly wrestle with remembering our baptism — our creativeness, our resourcefulness, our wholeness. No surprise that when we wrestle in life and in faith, the root of the wrestling tends be in forgetting, ignoring, or just not believing in our God-given CRW anymore. An example of this brokenness is when any one of us may feel stuck in our discernment and decisions and we stop or spin in our own growth opportunity. We recognize this as self-sabotaging. You deserve to connect with a coach who can support you in getting out of that cycle.

We coaches stand alongside people and support them in their work to connect with their own creativeness, resourcefulness, and wholeness. A coach is another teammate in the journey along with pastors, therapists, friends, teachers, mentors — you name it. We work with a person’s opportunity and powerful questions towards their own goal. We celebrate the work and the self awareness as the person in engaging with the power of the Spirit within them.

The power in coaching is participating in the building up of God’s kingdom with others by working and living out of our CRW(ness). The power in coaching is being a helpmate with another while someone is in threshold moments of decisions and opportunities. There is accountability in coaching through support in holding up the mirror of what one says is most important to them. Accountability and celebration is the work with your coach. That is the fun part! When the person connects with their own CRW through our coaching work together, there is automatic celebration.

During a series of sessions, one of my clients shared that she was surprised by all of the laughter. I asked, what surprises you about your laughter? She reflected on how often she is laughing because she continues to be so surprised by herself. Say it with me: “I am creative, resourceful, and whole.” This self-celebration is so vital. This is not about shaming one another in the work but supporting one another to recognize the power of the Spirit within them. Her response was about how she is surprised with her awareness that comes from the inside of her. The awareness seems so simple since it is within her, and yet the spontaneous joy at connecting to it is that sacred place of healing and wholeness. What I appreciate in her reflection is the joy and celebration (a little of not taking ourselves too seriously) and the absence of self shaming.

That is the work and the joy of being a coach (and a minister): knowing that our brokenness is not the end, modeling how to be in relationship with all of who we are, and living into the unlimited Grace that is affirmed in our baptism because we are creative, resourceful, and whole!


Tara Spuhler McCabe is a Presbyterian minister currently serving as the Coordinator for the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer program in Washington, DC, as a parish associate at Faith Presbyterian Church, a life and leadership coach, and as a “concierge” pastor who spends most of her time bringing pastoral presence and skill in response to the needs and opportunities in her neighborhood and community.

Love and Truth-Telling

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Beth Goss

I’m a second career pastor who spent my first career in public accounting with a large firm that had clients and business relationships around the world. It was a twelve-year heady immersion into business practices and culture and a marvelous experience for me. I learned a lot about myself as well as about the way large organizations do business — successfully and unsuccessfully. So when I began following a call to ordained pastoral ministry, I kept thinking about business practices and the way our peculiar Reformed tribe’s heritage has influenced our own structural (infra-structural) ways — the business of church.

Churches in North America often look to the successful business practices found in modern Western corporations with a mixture of admiration and skepticism. Our own Presbyterian heritage has put us in close parallel to the development of capitalist corporations and their best management practices. This is partly because the power and leadership in mainline denominations have often overlapped with the leadership in those same corporations. Think of the famous Presbyterian business people you know: Andrew Carnegie, Ross Perot, Sam Walton — all of whom had significant influence in the church at one time or another. Yet Presbyterians remain suspicious of worldly success. Not infrequently do I encounter a voiced objection to adopting business best practices into church management. “We’re a church and we shouldn’t do things the way businesses do,” is the way it’s stated. Because I have seen them up close and personal, I have similar reservations about corporate personnel policies, designed first and foremost to protect corporate objectives: making money for shareholders, sometimes sacrificing employees in the process.

So when I found myself as a solo pastor in a small church, I was in the same conflicted state. Best practices in business don’t translate easily into church settings. My dilemma was how to handle an employee whose behavior had become more and more difficult over a long tenure that preceded mine. For a variety of reasons, the prior pastor and leaders had not taken steps to address it. For at least seven years, I had not taken definite steps, either. The employee was growing less and less effective in the position, partly as a result of age, and partly as a result of failing to keep current in their field of expertise. The person had also seemed unaware of their own declining ability to do the job.

After several years of poor evaluations, and several offers for honorable retirement, the person had steadfastly refused to step down, and instead engaged parishioners (not involved in the process of personnel evaluation) in conversations about how “the powers that be” were poor judges and “out to get me” because there was “no decline in my abilities.” Not surprisingly, that behavior created a lot of distress both for the employee and the church leadership who could see what was happening, to say nothing of those church members who were unaware of the full picture. Those of us in leadership put off confronting the situation, instead hoping that the employee would eventually step down. We felt it was the loving thing to do.

Finally, it became clear to me that the situation could no longer be ignored. This happened about the same time I found an opportunity to participate in peer group coaching. My colleagues in the group gave me the opportunity to share my frustrations and clarify my own leadership role in the quandary: How could church leaders and I behave in such a way that the employee’s own distress could be acknowledged and dealt with in love, and, at the same time, fill a critical position on the church staff with a person who could do the job we feel needs to be done in this moment in the life of the church? The church had been trapped by a picture of ourselves as “loving,” thinking that failing to tell the truth — to either the employee or ourselves — was the way to express that love.

What we needed to learn was that there are spiritually healthy ways for churches to relate to employees that don’t undercut our values as a community of faith. Sometimes these ways are remarkably similar to business best practices. Truth-telling has to be part of it. We had to acknowledge our own failure to be honest and forthright about past employee evaluations, and we had to admit we had not been clear about employee expectations. We have taken steps remedy both, and put in process a way to fill the position. “What would Jesus do?” is still a valid question and an aspiration. Our read of the gospel helps us see that love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Jesus actually practiced both all the time. And we’re trying to as well.


Beth Goss is pastor of Church of the Covenant in Arlington, VA.

Seeing the Cross Again and Again for the First Time

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Roger J. Gench

I have a quandary. My quandary involves the cross — the central symbol of the Christian faith. We profess the centrality of the cross, but a critical dimension of it has virtually disappeared from ecclesial faith and practice: the cross as a public or political symbol that exposes not just the brokenness in our individual lives, but also the corresponding social and political brokenness in our world, for the two are intimately connected. This public dimension of the cross is, in my view, essential to the life of the church, but it is absent from too much of our life and faith.

To remedy this absence, for the last ten years or so I have been teaching, preaching and practicing a public theology of the cross, but it has not been easy! Thus, my quandary. I often find myself floundering as I’ve struggled to help folk understand it. However, my NEXT Church coaching cohort group is helping me to gain perspective on these struggles, perceived or real. To paraphrase Marcus Borg, I am seeing the cross again and again for the first time. Let me explain.

In the scholarly world, the theology of the cross has undergone significant change over the past 50 years, resulting in a recovery of more biblical understandings of the cross — for the New Testament presents a broader and richer range of perspectives on the cross than traditionally acknowledged, including what I am calling a public or political theology of the cross. From this perspective, the cross of Jesus represents the humiliating, dehumanizing abuse of power anywhere and everywhere it is exercised — on however large or small a scale. The cross is a place where all such abuse is exposed as not the way of God in the world, and also as a place where God seeks to bring life, healing, and justice in the midst of brokenness.

A public (or political) theology of the cross is grounded in our earliest biblical witnesses. The apostle Paul berated the Galatians with these words: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Gal 3:1). As Pauline scholar Davina Lopez astutely observes, “Paul’s Galatians . . . did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did not have to. There were plenty of examples before everyone’s eyes (in real life, in stone, on coins) of capture, torture, bondage, and execution of the others in the name of affirming Rome’s universal sovereignty through domination.”1 This quote represents a quintessential expression of public or political theology that sees the cross of Jesus as exposing other crosses, large and small all around us.

Theologian Ted Jennings puts it succinctly when he says that the cross represents a collision between the way of Jesus and the politics of domination.2 Kelly Brown Douglas is even more concrete and contemporary when she speaks about the crucified Jesus’ complete identification with the Trayvon Martins of our world. Moreover, she insists that this identification “with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”3

A public or political theology of the cross has profound implications for every aspect of ministry — whether discernment about pastoral care, children’s ministry, budget allocations, staffing, committee configurations, and membership, to social witness and action — for our own wounds (marks of the cross) are deeply connected to the wounds of others in our community and world. Recognizing these interconnections can profoundly affect the way we do ministry.

My intentional focus on a public theology of the cross for the ministry of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church has included invitations to the session and other groups within the church to engage readings on the subject. I have also preached on the cross ad nauseum! I am even considered inviting the session to rewrite our twenty-year-old mission statement based on a discernment process that engages the spirituality of the cross. But the work has not been easy; indeed, at times I pondered giving it up! Yet the question my NEXT Church cohort group posed to me helped put all of this in perspective. Their question was this: “How would you know if this understanding of the cross was reflected in your ministry?” How would I know?

Buddhism teaches that every symbol is a finger pointing to the moon. In other words, a symbol points to a reality not completely captured in the symbol. So a symbol like the cross needs to be “light on its toes” — it can be reflected in varied and expansive ways. Compassion, for example, is a sign of the cross when it moves beyond patronization into real interrelation with others who are suffering. When Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19), he is intensely identifying with the crucified of the earth. It seems to me that Paul’s theology of the cross resonates with statements by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh — “killing someone is killing yourself”4 — and James Cone — “When whites lynched blacks, they were literally lynching themselves – their sons, daughters, cousins.”5

So how would I know if a political understanding of the cross was reflected in my ministry? I suppose the truth is that I will never completely know, because the cross is a finger pointing to the moon. But there are intimations of it in every act of compassion — even an act that begins in patronization can, by the power of the Spirit, open us to the possibility of identification with the crucified, of seeing our wounds in the wounds of others. By the power of the Spirit, there are also intimations of the cross every time someone rails against an abuse, because harm of any one person harms all of us — as Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”6 Indeed, I’ve come to realize that intimations of the cross are present everywhere in the ministry of the church because the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ is present there too. It’s like learning to see the cross again and again for the first time.

Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 163.
Theodore Jennings, Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 61
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Orbis, 2015), 174.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society (Berkeley CA: Parallax Press, 2012), 109.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 165.
Letter From the Birmingham Jail.


Roger Gench is pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC and author of the book Theology from the Trenches: Reflections on Urban Ministry.

The Changing Landscape of Youth Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Wisseman

Background
I serve as associate pastor in a suburban church nestled in a neighborhood – the church and neighborhood grew together. Over the past 61 years, the neighborhood has changed and changed again. The church has not kept pace.

When the previous youth director relocated, I was asked if I would add youth to my portfolio. I inherited a ministry in decline. Since then, we have had some failures, and some successes. The good news is that it’s broken, and everyone sees it… which means we get start from a new place. Nonetheless, change is hard!

I requested a meeting this fall with key stakeholders in youth ministry, to be facilitated by a National Capital Presbytery coach. We met, and were fairly successful at deciding on and aligning priorities. One of the changes is a metamorphosis of our previous “Club 456” (an upper elementary youth ministry) to a new pre-teen ministry that will encompass grades 5-8. One of our struggles last year was trying to have a grade 7-12 youth group. (It’s not really surprising that the 12th graders weren’t all that interested in hanging out with the middle school kids on a regular basis.)

Trial and Error
Reinventing youth ministry for a changed context is not for the faint of heart. Once upon a time, the church was filled with families with young children and youth. The youth ministry was of good size and participation – vibrant by any measurement scale. There is a deep yearning for a return to those days.

We still have families, but our demographics are uneven. Many of the kids of youth group age are actively involved in a myriad of other activities… and sometimes church falls to the bottom of the list.

Lack of participation may be due to those activities, different priorities, or lack of relationships with some of the others (because they go to four different high schools)… or the change in culture. I know that our church is not alone in this cultural change!

As we try to discern needs, we’re throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks. Some of things we are trying include:

  • Trying to engage our youth in all aspects of church life.
  • Posting their game schedules, concerts, plays, etc. and encouraging the congregation to go and support our youth in their endeavors (if we can’t always get them to church, we can get the church to go to them).
  • Creating real estate they can “own” – not just on Sundays, but to hang out and do homework, or play games at other times.
  • Offering random opportunities (or pop up events) to gather for lunch, coffee, or ice cream.
  • Increased service opportunities.

Hoped for Outcomes
Not only is it necessary to change how we engage with our youth, we need to develop a new measurement for success that is not about large numbers on a Sunday night.

Success, for me, would be for our church to be a sanctuary – a safe place where every one of our students feels comfortable being their own best self. A place where they know in their hearts they are beloved as the very person God created each one of them to be. That they know that there are adults here who willing to listen (without immediately jumping in to problem solve or judgment). And to know (in their minds and hearts), and trust, that this body of Christ would be greatly diminished without their presence.


Susan Wisseman is associate pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, VA.

Can We Talk?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Don Meeks

Background
I am currently in my 17th year as the Pastor of a medium size, predominantly white, conservative church located thirty-five miles west of Washington DC. The changing cultural landscape in recent years has left many of our folks in a somewhat confused and anxious place, often feeling disconnected from the larger denomination.

In 2012 our Session voted unanimously to affiliate with the Fellowship of Presbyterians (now The Fellowship Community). Overall, this affiliation has been a positive experience for our church and has (mostly) helped folks to calm down.

With some training in Bowen family systems theory, I have been trying to offer non-anxious and self-differentiated leadership. One critical strategy for keeping myself calm has been an intentional effort in the past several years to reach across the theological aisle at our presbytery in an attempt to build relational bridges and mutual understanding.

A Calculated Risk
Like many, I followed the June 2014 General Assembly with keen interest. The night the marriage overtures passed I received an email from Jeff Krehbiel, a colleague from the ‘other side of the aisle’ whom I had begun to know through some shared presbytery work. Jeff acknowledged, with a gifted pastor’s touch, that the same news being celebrated at his church was likely to be a source of disappointment in our church. He was right.

Jeff offered himself in support of me in any way he could. In reply, I took a calculated risk and invited Jeff to address our Session and Deacons on how he makes the case from Scripture for same-sex marriage. This experience began a rich conversation and collegial relationship that grew as Jeff and I committed to facilitating an on-going conversation within our presbytery. We simply called this effort, “Can We Talk?” Jeff’s untimely death earlier this year has been a huge loss for so many, including myself, as we had begun to extend this conversation beyond our own presbytery, including an Ignite presentation and workshop at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta.

Beyond Either / Or
It’s no secret that the growing polarization in our culture tends to push us towards a binary paradigm that views things in terms of ‘us/them,’ ‘conservative/progressive,’ or ‘for/against.’ One of my greatest challenges has been to find a way beyond the ‘either/or’ dilemma that many denominational conservatives like myself believe we are faced with: either seek dismissal from the PCUSA, or stay and face membership defections and leadership battles.

Not surprisingly, I am finding few examples and fewer colleagues with the appetite for doing the relational work necessary to move beyond this ‘either/or’ mentality. For some it may be a lack of vision, imagination, or desire. For others it may be asking too much to abandon deeply embedded patterns of binary thinking.

I have also found a real tension lingering at the edges of this work: Can we be in meaningful relationship across the aisle without also being seen as a traitor, of sorts, to our own convictional community? Or from another angle, will our convictions be an honest stumbling block to others’ living out their own theological convictions?

Quite frankly, many times I have wondered if this is all a fool’s errand.

A Modest Attempt
I believe the implications for this work are profound, not only for the health of our churches, but also as a witness for Jesus Christ in our polarized and fragmenting culture. I have been greatly encouraged by the warmth and receptivity by the NEXT Church community and a pilot coaching cohort experience following the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City.

Is respectful and robust theological conversation about issues that divide possible? I think so. Could it ever be more than conversation? I hope so. But unless we first learn to sit and talk, it’s going to be virtually impossible to see ourselves as ministry partners in any meaningful way.
As I have continued to ponder and pray on all this, I believe the place to begin is with some kind of simple covenant that I would quietly commit to in my own life. I think it would be a covenant that commits to live toward unity with other Christians, that acknowledges the ‘log in my own eye,’ that honors the intentions of others as noble and just, and that respects the convictions of others even when they stand apart from my own convictions.

In short, I find myself wanting to make a modest attempt to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem with our denomination and our world. And I would be honored to have others join me.


Don Meeks is the senior pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia. He is active in the Fellowship Community within National Capital Presbytery.  His vision for ministry is to invite people to experience and express Christ-likeness in all of life. He is an avid golfer, psalmic intercessor and songwriter.

We Want Things to Be Different

by Jessica Tate

As we get our bearings this first week of 2018, many people (consciously or not) are thinking about what they want to be different in this new year. Some even go so far as to set up resolutions. It turns out that half of all resolutions aren’t kept and a third are disposed of by the end of January. If you are like me, you resemble that statistic.

For many of us, we want things to be different… to be more like the promises in scripture where hungry are fed and peace is present and life is abundant and the meek inherit the earth… but we’re not sure how to get there.

We want our worship services to carry more meaning, comfort, and challenge for people. We want our work in the world to have a meaningful impact. We want to be in communities that form us (not individualistic, consumeristic ways) but into fullness, abundant life, hope (and resolve) in the midst of suffering. We want these things, but we can’t seem to get there.

As we set sights on the NEXT Church National Gathering in February, we know many people come because they are hopeful (or need an infusion of hope) that things can be different. And yet at the end of a National Gathering (even a spectacular one!), we return to the contexts that go us here in the first place. As the calendar turns into 2018, we are still ourselves, with our same gifts and struggles, graces and vices. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky say, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization. Every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.” I think it’s true for people, too. We are perfectly aligned to achieve our current results.

So, if we really want to change, if we really want our lives/ministries/work to be different, how to we move toward it?

One tool NEXT Church has been exploring is coaching. Coaching, according to the International Coaching Federation, is “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Coaching is a tool that can help us move from a wishful thinking to an intentional action. A survey done by the International Coaching Federation found that across 2000 corporations, 34% of executives receive coaching and it does not tend to be remedial help for underperformers but those receiving coaching are usually the mid to upper level performers engaged in coaching. We need action-driven partnerships to support us in the work of leadership and change.

Following the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering, we piloted a group coaching cohort for ministry leaders (pastors, musicians, and elders) to help support leaders in making the kinds of change they long for in their ministries. (You can indicate interest in a similar group when you register for the 2018 National Gathering.) One of the biggest surprises in the cohort itself was that every time someone raised a sticky issue they faced in ministry in their church, there was a chorus of “me too” around the table. From sleepy worship experiences, to a youth ministry in decline, to Sunday school models not working, to trying to shift a theological culture — even though contexts were different, many of the challenges are the same.

The majority of the blog posts this month will share stories from those who participated in this cohort… the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone.

As you embark on your work and your life in 2018, take a moment to reflect on what you want to be different. If you are quick to come up with a long list, narrow it down to three things. (Most of us can’t manage more than that, anyway!) And then, for each of those three things, choose one, small action step. Maybe your goal is to lost 15 pounds by spring. A small action step might be to put three workouts on your calendar for this week. But don’t stop there, then ask yourself who can be a partner in this to support you and hold you accountable. Reach out to that person and ask if you can check in with them at the end of the week to share what progress you’ve made. And in all of it, be reminded that the processes of letting go and letting come, of death and new life, often happen in teeny, tiny steps along the way that lead us to transformed lives.


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