The Best a Pastor Can Be

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Christopher De La Cruz

After Gillette debuted their now viral ad, “The Best Men Can Be,” addressing toxic masculinity, bullying and sexual harassment, Graham Allen, a host on Blaze TV, felt compelled to respond with this photo on social media:

(Photo: Graham Allen via Facebook)

“Practicing our ‘toxic masculinity,’” wrote Allen. “Hey Gillette, does this offend you? I’ll raise my kids the way I believe they should be…thanks for your advice.”

As of this writing, the Gillette ad has over 700,000 likes… and 1.2 million “dislikes.” Many commentators erupted in outrage, some suddenly finding their inner Marxist in critiquing virtue-signalling corporatism and consumerism – critiques that are themselves are fine but strangely only erupt so passionately when the corporate signalling challenges toxic masculinity.

What about this ad causes so many men to feel threatened? What is it about the ad that, if I’m honest with myself, even I feel something deep in my core is being attacked?

In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks writes about the false self men have to put up to be a “real man.” Relationships are based off of power, fear, and dominance. Men are not allowed to express their emotions, to be vulnerable – to be fully human. The self-worth of men is determined by how much control – violence and force – they can exercise on their surroundings.

And why the lashing out if any of this is questioned? “The patriarchal manhood that was supposed to satisfy does not…to go forward they would need to repudiate the patriarchal thinking that their identity has been based on. Rage is the easy way back to a realm of feeling. It can serve as the perfect cover, masking feelings of fear and failure.”

Men, hooks argues, are taught they have to be right or they have lost their manhood. Instead, we need to show men that true strength doesn’t come from performing perfection, but the capacity to grow – the will to change.

As a pastor, I am increasingly conscious of how patriarchal norms affect my own leadership norms. I have experienced pastors who charmed with charisma that bled into emotional manipulation, that feigned a lack of hierarchy until any call for accountability would cause him – it’s always a him – to suddenly pull rank as the ordained holy man. Rachel Held Evans said on social media that she felt church growing up for her boiled down to men talking at her. Is this the best a pastor can be?

Reading The Will to Change challenged my pastoral leadership to the core. Yes, it’s ok to admit that I messed up, and that I need to be held accountable. Yes, I do need to do the emotional work of seeking consent and hearing people’s criticisms and objections rather than going at it alone like a cowboy. Yes, I can still be decisive and impactful and mold consensus rather than simply follow it, while also being gracious and gentle. And yes, I need to listen to and empower women.

The book also made me grateful for the church I pastor at now, and for the leadership of head pastor Rev. Patrick O’Connor, a Metro IAF community organizer who is very much a respected leader while valuing relational over dominance power, pastoral care, constructive criticism, and who always challenges me every time I want to start something – “but did you form a team?”

I feel bell hooks calling me to be a better pastor, especially for the men and boys who need to see another way of being a man. After all, isn’t acknowledging the need for growth and the will to change at the heart of Christian discipleship?


Christopher De La Cruz is the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, NY. De La Cruz has written for NEXT Church, the Presbyterian Outlook, and Princeton Theological Seminary’s “The Thread.”

You, Me, and White Fragility: Open Letters from the NEXT Church Co-Chairs

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

A dialogue between Shavon Starling-Louis and Adam Fronczek

Shavon: Hey, Adam!

So we are drawing near to the end our year of overlapping as co-chairs for the strategy team of NEXT Church and it has been quite a year! We have had amazing opportunities to stand side by side to celebrate the innovative, creative ways in which the people of God are sharing Christ in the world, like at the National Gathering in Baltimore, and we have had times when we have navigated tension and discord – particularly around issues of systemic and interpersonal experiences of racism in our work.

I have to admit that despite having met through NEXT Church a few years back, I was curious as to how we would work together. We come from different church setting backgrounds – you, larger predominately white; me, mostly serving a smaller multiracial, multicultural church.

Our time of shared leadership started with a rather shaking experience that reflected the systemic and personal messiness of racism. For some of us it was a shock, a rip, a rending of the relational fabric which NEXT Church builds itself upon; for others its was an unmasking of holes that already existed.

In response, the fuller NEXT Church leadership looked, felt, searched for a way forward grounded in our Christian call for justice and mercy. There were times when as an African-American woman, the weight of my deep love for NEXT Church and the PC(USA) combined with the piercing of the heart, mind, and spirit that comes when racist ideas erupt so closely seemed like too much for me. I was particularly pained when I saw racism wound other leaders of color who are precious, beloved friends and colleagues.

In hindsight at the beginning of our shared tenure, there were times when I could have used a bit more support particularly when a systemically oppressive idea was shared in our work.

Recently, I was wondering about those moments. I wondered, could Adam sense that something needed to be said? Was I expecting him to be a mind reader or was there something else going on there?

Without being accusatory, it seemed like those earlier moments that I struggled with were actually examples of white silence and the white solidarity that it promotes. Both of which, as you know Robin DiAngelo discusses in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But I also wonder if it’s me or did you also notice a shift in our co-leadership once we read White Fragility along with the fuller NEXT Church strategy team? I have noticed you have stepped into have certain situations with a posture that is supportive of the leadership I bring and yet volunteers to carry weight that might be extra heavy if I had to carry it. I have felt that White Fragility (the book, not the phenomenon) has been a helpful conversation partner in our co-leadership, but would love to hear your thoughts.

Adam: Shavon,
Thank you for your honest, challenging, and compassionate letter. Across this difficult season we’ve shared, I’ve learned so much from leading with you. Among your many gifts, you know how to name an issue – to call it like it is – and here you’ve done it again. And you always do so speaking the truth in love.

White silence – the idea that white people maintain their safety in difficult conversations about race by being silent – was a new idea for me this year. You and I became co-chairs just as our strategy team agenda unraveled into a long-overdue conversation about racism and white privilege. My first reaction was to become silent. My rationale went something like this: “The last thing this conversation needs is another white male to be a dominant voice. The best thing you can do, Adam, is listen and try to learn something.”

Then, as our hard conversations progressed, I heard that one of the worst things well-meaning white people do in conversations about race is remain silent. When something uncomfortable or racist is said by another white person, white folks expect the persons of color in the room to bravely name it, rather than taking responsibility to speak a challenging word to our own white brothers and sisters and try to be brave ourselves. I first started internalizing this feedback thanks to you and other people of color on our strategy team. Then, when we read White Fragility, I found a name and definition for it: “white silence.” So in that sense, the answer to your question is “yes,” our reading this book together has given me language to name behaviors I’ve been struggling with all year long.

The more complicated response to your question is that I still haven’t figured out the best way to break out of my white silence. While I have a renewed conviction about calling out white privilege and white fragility when I see it, I know also that there is much to be gained if me and the other white folks spend less time talking and more time listening.

There is no rule book or manual that helps me know when to speak up and when to shut up, and I continue to struggle with that – it makes me feel vulnerable, unsafe, and ill at ease, like I don’t really belong. I’ve tried to make peace with those unsettling feelings by reminding myself that, especially in the 90% white PC(USA), people of color are almost always in contexts like that. They are asked to play by a rule book of white behaviors that cause people of color to feel unsafe. For generations, people of color have figured out how to bravely navigate those situations. I confess that in my own white silence I have been a coward, and I hope to be more brave in the days ahead.

I promised you a question back. I know that you have thoughtfully engaged your congregation and presbytery in some of the same work we’ve been doing at NEXT Church with White Fragility. What is your vision for where those conversations go in the PC(USA) and how can I and other white folks in our denomination help to advance that vision?

Shavon: Thanks Adam!
Truly. Thank you.

My vision is that the PC(USA) will be a denomination recognizable for cultivating and liberating Christian community with the theological, spiritual, and interpersonal courage and stamina to overcome the atrophy of the faith which is reflected in all forms of systemic and interpersonal expressions of oppression – including white fragility. In order to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will edify the faithful to be stewards of power or privilege for divine justice in ways previously unseen.

Regarding how to help advance that vision – God willing, all of us, but particularly our white siblings can begin with a counter-cultural expectation of discomfort, vulnerability, and failure. To do so is to expect to learn, to grow, and to experience God’s grace in their lives and the lives we touch.

Adam, I am truly blessed that God has allowed our lives to have touched.

With Gratitude and Hope,
SSL


 Shavon Starling-Louis is the pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Adam Fronczek is pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both have served as co-chairs of the NEXT Church strategy team for the past year.

Scripture, Poetry, and the “Irrational David”

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jenny Warner

When I get stuck, I call Ken Evers-Hood.

And when you read his new book, you’ll know why he’s on my speed dial of advisers.

Ken and I met as pastors in the same presbytery in Oregon. As a new pastor, serving three hours from the hub of most other churches, I had few true colleagues. Ken invited me to sit in the back row with him, included me in the irreverent commentary of the younger pastors (by which I mean those under 55), all the while sharing with me a great love of the presbytery and its process.

I learned to trust Ken’s perspective, and so when he invited me to join him in a yearlong leadership cohort with the poet David Whyte in 2015, I said yes. The experience changed both of us. We found a community and a construct that took us further in ministry, our lives and our future. Our collective engagement with David’s work taught us to bring our whole selves to bear in our vocation. We learned to trust where vulnerability leads us, which is perhaps the most radical move a leader in contemporary America can make, religious or not.

Ken found another companion in this wholehearted journey in David of the Bible – a shepherd, king, musician, poet, friend, lover, and full-throated human. In this book, you will see David with a lens that opens fresh possibilities of being faithful, not perfect.

In his first book, The Irrational Jesus, Ken offered his doctoral research on decision-making and leadership in the church. In this book, The Irrational David, Ken dives deep and has “a real conversation,” as David Whyte would say. He brings Scripture, philosophy, theology, poetry, literature, and psychology into a conversation that puts us all at ease because of Ken’s profound vulnerability.

For those who are struggling to articulate a faith that is not either/or in the aftermath of the liberal/fundamentalist battles, Ken masterfully articulates a faith that honors the complexity of postmodern understandings in a way that is grounded and undefended. He doesn’t let either side get away with defended polarities and invites us into faithfulness and wholeness instead.

My copy of this book will be full of underlining and coffee stains as I return over and over to see what Ken has to say about the text I’m preaching on. His words often say what I intuit, but am not yet able to articulate. As a gift to preachers, he brings along references from literature, history, and life that will make Scripture come alive week after week. This book is a trusted dance partner in the rhythm of life with God.

Editor’s note: The Irrational David is not available yet, but you can sign up to receive an email from Amazon when it is available there. This post will be updated when the book is available (any day now!).


Jenny Warner is pastor at Valley Presbyterian Church on the western edge of the Silicon Valley. She loves the challenge of pastoring on the West Coast. She and Chris have two teenage daughters and a Bernese Mountain Dog named Holly.

Radical Reconciliation Reimagined

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Glenn McCray

I love to read, but if I’m honest, I rarely read books cover-to-cover. Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietsm is not one of those books. I’ve read this book 3 times! What I appreciate about this book, among many things, is the amazing job co-authors Allan Aubrey Boesak (2016 NEXT Church National Gathering keynoter) and Curtiss Paul DeYoung do of engaging the topic of reconciliation from a theological, historical, political, social, and racial perspective. While they use South Africa’s struggle against apartheid and the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a practical example, they esteem Jesus as being central not only to the work of the TRC but the real, radical, and revolutionary work of reconciliation as well.

Boesak and DeYoung deconstruct the Jesus painted by dominant culture, referencing liberation theologian Miguel de la Torre: “Those wishing to ground their understanding of reconciliation within the Cristian tradition are forced to deal with the figure of Jesus Christ.” The question they pose is, “Which Jesus?” Boesak suggests, “It cannot be the Jesus as we have seen, the one captured Africans first met when we saw his name carved in the sides of the slave ships that carried Africans from their homelands into slavery. Neither can it be the Christ of the church doctrines who evolved into the blond, blue-eyed Christ of Western culture so alien to the enslaved, oppressed, exploited peoples who were baptized in his name. Nor can it be the Jesus only known as the one who offered unconditional forgiveness to all. For us, as for the Gospel, this Jesus first and foremost has to be the Jesus who stood in the synagogue in Nazareth, according to the Gospel of Luke, and proclaimed himself the Spirit-anointed One of God.” I resonate with this wrestle.

As a person of color, born to an immigrant mother from the Philippines and an African American father from Louisiana, raised in a marginalized community, I was raised to be suspicious of dominant culture. Understandably so. I eventually gave my life to Jesus and, naturally, I had my suspicions about him too. It wasn’t until later in my faith when I realized that my issue wasn’t with Jesus but rather the Jesus that was presented to me and communities of color for centuries. The Jesus that I’ve come to know is not a Jesus of comfort and convenience but rather a Jesus who inconveniently and nonsensically disrupts the status quo theologically, historically, politically, socially, racially, and personally. This Jesus is the Jesus we were always meant to follow.

The work of Boesak and DeYoung, along with so many others, greatly influence the way I understand and live into ministry. As someone who is passionate about reconciliation it is important to me to have an ongoing hunger to learn from those who have and continue to wrestle with what it means to be reconciled people (to God, self, and others); however, reconciled does not mean that we’re simply diverse. As my mentor Tali Hairston (a 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering keynote speaker) reminds me, “If diversity is our objective, we still fall short. Unity is the objective.”

As we continue engage this challenging work, and even as we gather at the National Gathering, it will be an aesthetically beautiful, yet challenging space considering we represent various theological, ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, gender, and political backgrounds and beliefs. It will be an exhilarating (or not) first-time experience for some and an exhausting (or not) “here we go again” experience for others. And while we might pause every now and again to appreciate the diversity of the gathering, be reminded that diversity is not the objective. Unity is. And I would suggest that reconciliation (to God, self, and others) is how we get there. Allan Boesak suggests, “The issue is not reconciliation. The problem is our understanding and interpretation of it…Are we ready to imagine reconciliation?


Glenn McCray is married to Rev. Tasha Hicks McCray, lead Pastor at Mt. View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where he also worships and serves. Vocationally, Glenn serves as the Director of Church-Based Community Development with Urban Impact, a para-church ministry in Seattle. Together, Tasha and Glenn also serve as high school girls basketball coaches at their neighborhood high school, Evergreen.

Reading as Good Leadership

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jessica Tate

“What have you read recently that has been worth passing on?” the leadership coach asked.

I sighed and thought to myself (only half jokingly), “Oh, wow. I remember reading… Back before I was a parent and moved and worked a (more than) full time job and tried to have some sort of social life and tended to extended family.” These are constraints, of course, and they are very, very real.

It’s also real that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership. And secondly, that passing on what has been worthwhile is also a mark of good leadership. NEXT Church is committed to developing leaders and to continual growth and learning in the context of community. We hope this month of blog posts will offer some good food for thought as we put reading/learning back on the front burner. To kick us off, here are five titles that I read (or re-read or read most of!) this past year that are worth your time.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown
Brown’s work is like no other leadership book I’ve read. She pulls together lessons from community organizing, science fiction, the natural world, poetry, and her own experience. At times it reads like a stream of conscience, and it is rich. She argues for an adaptive and relational way of being that becomes a strategy “for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions.” That seems to me to be the sweet spot for the church – transformation on the small scale in individual encounters, sermon by sermon, prayer by prayer, project by project that is connected to a more complex and strategic system to change the world. Perhaps my favorite line of the book is quoted from a sign in the home of the late Grace Lee Boggs: “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual.” How do we lead in ways that shape community so that our communities and the world around us find abundant life?

Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work by Brené Brown
I’ve been a big fan of Brené Brown’s since I read The Gifts of Imperfection about five years ago and listened to hear TED Talk on shame and vulnerability. This new book pulls on all the previous work and research of Brown and her team and puts it directly in the context of work and leadership at work. She illustrates how vulnerability works (and doesn’t work) at work. She talks about what it takes to lead with a whole-heart. She unpacks what shame does to colleagues in the work place. I’m finding that her research and its applications are pulling together the best of what I have learned through the disciplines of community organizing, the work of Cultivated Ministry, and what I’m learning about dismantling racism. It’s not a theological book per se, but helps me embody (I pray) a servant leadership and the best of what is meant by our call to lose our lives to save them.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
“Well, that explains a lot.” That has been my consistent reaction to DiAngelo’s book on why white people have a hard time engaging and dismantling racism in a serious and lasting way. She has helped me understand systems I work and live within, the reactions of people around me, and (most importantly) helped hold up a mirror for me to see myself and my own reactions more clearly. It’s not been a particularly comfortable read, but I believe it is a sanctifying discomfort in service of a more honest view of myself and a commitment to repentance in the fullest theological sense of going a new way.

DiAngelo mixes it up with helpful frameworks for understanding systemic racism and the “pillars of whiteness” alongside tangible examples of what it looks like in practice to build up my racial stamina, to be willing to enter discomfort for the sake of honoring the experience of people in marginalized groups, and to take every opportunity to learn. The NEXT Church Strategy Team read and discussed this book this fall. We are working toward building racial stamina in the white folk in our leadership and to work together to ensure that people in marginalized groups are not undercut by practices that diminish all of us.

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
We ask the participants in our certificate for Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership to read this book and I’ve been re-reading it along with them. Thurman argues that the Christianity most of us have been taught does not deal much with those who stand “with their backs against the wall” at a particular moment in history, other than to have them be the beneficiaries of our “mission.” Further, he reminds us that Jesus – in his personhood – is one who speaks Good News directly to and for those with their backs against the wall. It’s a good reminder to de-center my own experience as I think about what is next for the church. I am also seeing more clearly in the text this time around the importance of the liberating work of Jesus to a “weary, nerve-snapped civilization.” Thurman wrote these words in 1976, but goodness they seem an accurate description of our culture today.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1953-63 by Taylor Branch
In all fairness, I’ve been reading this book for the last TWO years. At 1088 pages, it is a tome, but it is also an illuminating look at the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The level of detail paints a much fuller picture than the broad brushstrokes that colored much of my knowledge of the movement from history class. I am finding it a helpful read because it giving me broader perspective on the current political and cultural moment in the United States. This is significant for several reasons. First, there are different philosophies and strategies and tactics for social and cultural change. What can feel like dysfunction in the current social movements is human nature and has been part of this work all along. It’s part of the struggle. Second, organizing for effective social and cultural change is messy and hard. This perhaps is obvious, but it has ben a good reminder that the Montgomery Bus Boycott wasn’t simple to pull off. It required a lot of coordination, grit, and huge sacrifice by the folks who participated. I shouldn’t expect that social change today would require any less sacrifice of me. Third, the role of the church! The church (and mostly the Black Church) played a huge and important role in supporting, equipping, training, and praying for this movement. The church was essential to the movement. I pray the church today is seeking to have such impact.


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

Black Congregations Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gregory Bentley

A high school classmate and clergy colleague of mine, Reverend James Ross, argues that the African American experience can be seen through the lens of five ‘Ps’: property, problems, performers, purchasers, and paranoia.

  1. Property: For 250 years African Americans were seen as chattel and worked from “can’t see to can’t see” to enrich the slaveholding class in particular and the nation in general. This is the foundation, along with the genocide of the Native people and the theft of their land, for the wealth of America and its super power status today.
  2. Problems: After Emancipation, what do we do with these four million ex-slaves? Houston, we have a problem, so let’s enact Black codes and vagrancy laws, keep them in their place with terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and return them to a form of neo-slavery called sharecropping.
  3. Performers: Well, they sure can sing and dance and play ball. So let’s use them as entertainers for our amusement.
  4. Purchasers: Some of them have some money and want badly to spend it with us, so let’s do away with this pesky thing called segregation so that we can have unfettered access to their pocketbooks.
  5. Paranoia: Y’all see racism in everything. If you learn how to follow the rules, work hard, and be people of high character, you will make it in America. Stop blaming everything on racism. Y’all have had enough time to get your act together.

These five ‘Ps’ still persist in our day and time and are seen in the dynamics of the various responses to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and many others like it. It seems that the legacy of another legal case associated with Missouri – the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially concluded that no Black person in America had any rights which any white person had to recognize – still haunts us to this very day. So what is the Good News in light of this persistent and pernicious reality relative to the PCUSA? Is there a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? Yes there is! That balm is love and the application of that balm begins with affirming that BLACK CONGREGATIONS MATTER!

This love of Black congregations must be expressed in concrete, tangible ways in every council of the church from session to presbytery to synod and General Assembly. These councils must be intentional about serving as “Paracletic ministries” to come alongside Black congregations to equip and empower them to be the mission stations and face of the PCUSA in our local communities. And yes, that means putting the critical question to struggling Black congregations that Jesus put to the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be made well?” Those who answer “Yes,” let’s put every resource available toward that end. Those who answer “No,” allow them to die with dignity so that we can focus all of our energy and effort on those who will and not those who won’t. The challenges facing our communities are too daunting and dreadful to be preoccupied with a self-referentialness that doesn’t allow us to see clearly what is right in front of us. Another way of putting this is that we’ve got to love our communities more than we love being Presbyterian.

I believe there is still a vision for the appointed time if we would but summon the courage to see and to seize it. The choice is ours and I hope we move forward with the spirit of an old hymn of the church, “A Charge to Keep I Have”:

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify
A never dying soul to save and fit it for the sky,
To serve this present age, my calling to fulfill,
May it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.


Gregory J. Bentley has served the Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama since January 2012. When not juggling one of his many roles in local political and civic affairs, he enjoys good music, reading and playing chess. Rev. Bentley lives in Huntsville with his wife Diann and his daughters Miriam and Johari.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

National Words for Local Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who said, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.


Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

A Butterfly Beginning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Antonio Lawrence

I have come to appreciate something that has become extremely critical in my personal and spiritual development. Any organization that is entrusted to the hands of humans will be flawed and will deal with issues that will keep it from being at is best. The church, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA), is an exception to the rule.

As a Teaching Elder (Minister of the Word and Sacrament) I have seen the church at her best and even at its worse. I have seen the church at its best when she lives her mission to protect and nurture the most vulnerable people in society. A church that has shown the ability to respond to the natural disasters of the world, and working towards long term recovery goals. I have seen a church stand for immigration reform for our sisters and brothers seeking a better life desiring to live out the American Dream. The very things that the church strives to be the best at are many of the same things that make us flawed. This church who actively seeks do justice outside the church must engage in redemptive reflection that seeks to address the suffering of those inside of our church that keeps us from living into the beloved community that we strive to be.

We must learn to wrestle like Jacob at Jabbock with our intersectional sins, known as race, class, and gender, that keep us from seeing the humanity of the individuals for whom we took a constitutional oath to call colleague. If the church is become the loving community God created it to be, we must allow ourselves to embrace the beautiful, yet never ending, struggle of becoming our better selves. In his book Illusions, author Richard Bach whom my late father challenged me understand, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly beginning.” The simplicity of the quote nearly masks the profoundness of its meaning – that all of God’s creations are destined to struggle as they try to fulfill their purpose. My desire is for the church to press through the safety and comfort of its chrysalis, much like the caterpillar does as it becomes a butterfly.

I want to see a church that is not afraid to wrestle with the uncomfortable realities of this world, even as we grow in our faith in life everlasting. A church that speaks out against injustice, looks out for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and tries out new ways to embrace our journey through Jabbock. Once the church embraces its butterfly potential, all perspectives and priorities will change. As a church, our vantage points will be more encompassing because we will be able soar to new heights and in different directions. We will impact more lives, save more souls, and be more like Christ. We will no longer be bound to the earthly injustices. As a church, we will be able to do more, because we’ve been able to experience and know more.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is filled with difficult days of struggle and change. Are we, the church, in for difficult days ahead as we struggle? The answer is a resounding, “YES”! And yet, we must take advantage of this golden opportunity. The chrysalis of the church – the thing that is keeping us earthbound – is our inability to be fearless in our pursuit of becoming. As I continue my transformation by tackling injustices large and small that keep black and brown bodies outside of the arms of liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. I know that if I start there, I can help others to soar as I go on to reach new heights on my own Christian journey.

My own transformative journey was shaped by an Eastern, North Carolina community that now calls me Pastor. The Rev. Dr. Michael C. Franklin calls the church an “anchor institution that is the bedrock of society” and, “a church that affirms the humanity of people that the world has given up on”. I have grown to value of what Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert calls a “relentless hope for the church”. It is a prophetic hope that names the reality of where we are, and points with an ethological hope towards a beautiful future. I still have hope. Do you?


Antonio M. K. Lawrence is the Senior Pastor of the Faith Presbyterian Church in Goldsboro, NC. Under his leadership with the help of the Lord, Faith Presbyterian Church has become one of the fastest growing racial ethnic churches in the Presbytery of New Hope. He is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and Princeton Theological Seminary

I Can’t Breathe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kelle Brown

We are the church that is becoming, the church that is and will be. The church and all of her people are in the hands of the Maker God, who never has stopped the act of creation, and who is never disinterested or disconnected in God’s creation. God’s love and presence flows. Pours. Showers. Floods and splatters. For this, we give thanks.

In lieu of this assurance, I support the words of a fellow Presbyterian concerning the limitations of the resolution regarding the Black church and its connection and support, or lack thereof. The colleague shared, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide.”

Photo from the Plymouth Church Seattle United Church of Christ Facebook page

The tide has not been stemmed, and African American churches are ceasing to exist because of it. I resist saying dying, because Black churches are more rightly succumbing to the institutional supremacy that is pervasive without much challenge. The theology of the African American Presbyterian church is strong and life-giving. The people of the churches are as faithful as ever they’ve been. The intelligence, deep wisdom, willingness, and energy are all in place. Yet, no church is an island unto itself, and the best sense of our connectional covenant binds us together for the sake of our shared faith and sustenance. The PCUSA is gifted by the presence of all its peoples, and is blessed by its churches of color — not simply to fulfill some quota of diversity — but so that God can forge and knit us together as a vision of the Beloved Community.

While the acknowledgement of the larger church by way of the resolution is necessary and in many ways hopeful, we must acknowledge that it is a particular privilege to lament, assess, and consider while the most vulnerable congregations struggle. Black churches have been sharing for many years the disparity and being treated less-than-equally. Strategies are dreamed, and curricula are created, and prayers for reconciliation go forth while the systems of oppression churn along unhindered. Often, there is collective jubilance that comes too easily. Many celebrate the agreements of process that may one day down the road lead to equity. In the meantime, another church has died.

The slow pace of “justice” and creating inclusion in itself is an injustice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” We have waited and watched, and this kind of church is exhausting and debilitating when the realities of the world call for the church to be a place of refuge and respite. It’s like taking the time to debate oxygen’s worth and efficacy while holding the hose and watching a person gasp for air. We have to become more spiritually agile and open to God’s movement when folks whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

In essence, the trickle down concept of which the quote references is a problematic American norm, and the myth of its effectiveness is perpetuated again and again, all while knowing that the paradigm is not infused with spirit, equity or justice-making. Reconciliation and healing don’t happen in a vacuum. Repair isn’t begun with thoughts and prayers, when clergy of color are often culled rather than cultivated. Repair in this sense has to be dedication to the clergy of color who dare to remain a part of the church. Repair must be dismantling systems of oppression, and acknowledging the present trauma of participation. Repair must be authentic discipleship, journeying alongside one another in courageous and liberative ways.

Let us honor the African American church and her resilience which is often the needed authentic voice in the world, and thank our Creator that God is endowing us grace to move forward. Let us believe that our collective right action will grow and sustain all of our churches. And let us endeavor on until we have stemmed the tide, and joined in the vision of Amos where God justice rolls down like a mighty stream upon us all.


Kelle Brown is the current lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ. She is a recent graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, completing her D. Min, and is involved in justice work and reframing church as it pertains to systems of oppression and authentic welcome. She enjoys writing, singing and loving life with her daughter Indigo and grandmother Dorothy.