Ten Facilitation Tips for Meeting Online

NEXT Church has been operating virtually for the past 7+ years, so we are super familiar with meeting online! Mostly, we have used Zoom, so we refer to that platform here, but we hope these tips will translate across different platforms. 

  1. Create a clear agenda. As you are creating the agenda, be very clear about what type of activity or response you need from the group (e.g., vote, discussion, FYI). People need more clarity when online than they do in the room. 
  2. Intentionally assign roles. It is harder to multi-task on a screen than in person. For instance, have someone host. Have someone run tech. Have someone take notes. Have someone record attendance or vote-counts. If you do introductions at the top of a meeting, it works best if the host invites people to share. That way everyone doesn’t jump on top of each other. 
  3. Welcome people! Greet people as they come on, just like you would in a room. If you are getting together with people you’ve not met, introduce yourself. Chat until the meeting gets started or let people know if you need to run and refill your coffee while things get moving. If people come in late, welcome them, but don’t rehash everything you’ve already done. And don’t forget to do a bit of extra narration for those on the phone only, who can’t see what’s happening on video.
  4. Some silence is ok. As the facilitator, you’ll be tempted to fill all the space. Don’t. Give a longer beat of silence when you ask a question or start a discussion than you would in the room. It’s also ok to check in about silence. “Does the lack of response mean you all agree? Or you are unsure? Or you didn’t hear me?”
  5. Discussions feel different over video than they do in a room. If the group is small and comfortable with each other, it will probably go fine. If it is a larger group or folks don’t know each other, often, only a few voices will get heard. So, see #5.
  6. Use breakout rooms! It’s like a turn to your neighbor feature. It’s great for relational things, prayer partners, small group discussion, or even committee meetings during a larger meeting. 
  7. It’s harder to read body language online than in the room. If the first few voices agree with an idea, it’s a good idea to ask something like, “does anyone have a different opinion?” It’s also helpful to remind participants that they will need to be responsive. If someone asks a question like, “Are we ready to move on?,” it’s helpful to give a thumbs up or actually say “yes.”
  8. Practice all the good facilitation skills you use in person. Ask the most frequent voices to give some space. Invite less frequent voices to share their thoughts. Intentionally check with the people on the phone who don’t have the advantage of the video to know when and how to break into the conversation.  
  9. Time management is key. 60-90 minutes is MAX over video and shorter is better. Consider adding time frames to your agenda.
  10. People logging in from their own space is a gift. Enjoy it when children pop onto the screen to say hello. Chuckle at the dog who jumps up on a lap. Ask about an interesting book on a shelf or poster on the wall or the orchid growing in the background. It’s a chance to get to know people in a different way. 


Ten Tips for Folks New to Online Meetings

NEXT Church has been operating virtually for the past 7+ years, so we are super familiar with meeting online! Mostly, we have used Zoom, so we refer to that platform here, but we hope these tips will translate across different platforms. 

  1. You can do this! If you are unsure, do a test run and check out the Zoom FAQs. 
  2. Set yourself up well. 
    1. Find a place with good wifi/internet connection. If you get a message at any point that your internet is unstable, give it a minute and it will likely resolve. If not, you can try logging back in or calling on the phone.
    2. If you are able, attend on video. It helps everyone feel more connected. 
    3. Have headphones available in case there is some background noise or echoing. (If you are typing during the call, that can usually be heard if you aren’t using headphones.)
    4. Pull up the login information five minutes before so that you aren’t five minutes late.
    5. Grab some water or coffee ahead of time.
  3. Say hello! Treat the start like any other meeting. Say hello and introduce yourself if you are meeting with folks you don’t know. 
  4. Check your name when you join. Click on the three dots in the upper right corner of your picture once online. Click “Rename.”
  5. Choose your view – gallery view (think Brady Bunch grid) or speaker view (current speaker is large). The selection button is found in the upper right corner and will only change your personal viewing screen.

    Gallery View

    Speaker View

  6. Don’t forget, we can see you and hear you! Mute yourself when you aren’t talking, especially in large groups, to cut down on background noise. You can turn the video/sound off if something awkward happens or you need to move away to take care of something. (Pro tip: Don’t vacuum while you are on a video call. It happened.)
  7. Be responsive. Silences are more awkward online. If a question is asked, jump in or give a thumbs up or put something in the chat box. Also notice if you are talking too much and pull back a little bit. If your (unofficial) role in the group is to keep things moving, you might pull back by saying aloud, “I have a few thoughts but I have spoken a lot; I’m curious what others think.”
  8. If you are calling in on the phone, say, “This is [insert your name here]” before you start talking. That helps orient people to who is saying what.
  9. Use the chat feature to converse with other participants in the meeting. You will find this at the bottom toolbar, among other useful tools, including how to leave the meeting. The chat function is great for:
    1. sharing a document or web address
    2. asking a question or making a comment if you can’t jump into the conversation
    3. cracking a joke
    4. saying hello or goodbye, if you don’t want to interrupt
  10. Receive the gift of seeing people in their own spaces! Ask about an interesting plant or knick knack. Wave to children or housemates who wander in. Enjoy the antics of pets. Marvel at the gift that is technology that allows us to connect this way.

You really can do this! It will get easier as it becomes more familiar.

Choirs and Serpents and Doves

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Carlton David Johnson

An emergency Friday evening meeting at the church troubled my parent’s hearts. The mandatory gathering gave me heartburn. It was Friday night, the weekend of my 28th birthday, and there were parties to go to.

The pastor who was also a chaplain for the United States Army, had been deployed to Operation Desert Storm. He would be leaving in less than a week and there were leadership appointments needed in his absence.

It was the first time the pastor was going to be away and he picked a woman, a brilliant young DMin student to lead a Baptist congregation that had never had a female minister. The congregation was immediately at war.

There was one thing they agreed on; I would be leading the music ministry. I was their musical Boy Wonder whose gifts they had nurtured for over 20 years. There was the chance, I thought, that I could fix this problem over the next few weeks by producing soothing melodies from our stellar choir. After all, these same impressive salves had eased the pain in smaller past upheavals.

It was not to be so. And the shipwreck would be my fault.

I came to the task with years…ok decades…of pinned up awareness of problems within our church. The small church had produced award winning musicians and singers. The choir was replete with prima donnas and divas. Over half of them belonged to the same (very talented) family. The most talented was my closest friend.

In the past, she helped me with matters within our church and in other ministries where I served. Surely, she would continue giving unbiased feedback…right? No.

In our haste, I managed to offend her and her entire family within a week. The ugliness grew from a two-sided war to a battle royal. As an example, since our church followed the older tradition of deacons leading “Devotion”, a half hour of prayer and long-metered hymns at the start of worship, choir members routinely arrived after the official start time of worship to avoid participating. For many, the tradition was dated and needed to be discontinued. The solution would have included reducing the time of the deacon’s devotion as well as challenging choir members to be in the choir loft at the start of worship. But remember these folks were all related and even those outside of family bonds had known each other for decades. Oh, did I tell you that the leader of the pack was my best friend’s mother who also acted as something of a second mother to me? Yeah, that part.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a request from the (temporary) pastor that the newly formed teen choir be assigned a Sunday each month to participate in worship. Sounded simple enough. Unfortunately, my bestie had identified the teen choir as a “group” (rather than a choir) that she was developing for the big stage, not Sunday morning services. And she was not budging. Neither was the temporary pastor.

Thankfully, word came that the pastor would be back within two weeks.

My final two Sundays were marked with an almost empty choir loft. I was humble enough (humiliated enough?) to contact my bestie and her mother to let them know that I was conceding “informal leadership” to them for the rest of our pastor’s absence and I would remain available to them. An important relationship was restored.

Upon his return, the pastor immediately contacted me to apologize for leaving me with “such a mess”. I also apologized for my haste. He guided me to the writer of Matthew’s counsel that would stay with me for the rest of my work in music ministry and even now in leadership in the larger church. That advice is to always “be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove” (Matthew 10:16). I left that experience understanding “spirit-led worship”. The ultimate goal is not a splendid experience, but God’s glory. It was a lesson in the efficacy of prayer and patience.

Carlton David Johnson is an associate minister at the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, GA where he leads the Ujima Men’s Fellowship, Kijana Boys Rites of Passage, Fawohodie Ministry to the Incarcerated and their families and serves in music ministry. He is a board member of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church Community Development Corporation, the Presbyterian Pastoral Care Network and NEXT CHURCH (Strategic Planning Team). He is a regular contributor to the Presbyterian Outlook monthly magazine. Carlton recently began serving as the Associate for Vital Congregations for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Carlton and his wife Cara split their time between Atlanta, GA and Louisville, KY

Stuck in the Snow and Rescued by Unexpected Angel

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Lane Brubaker

Every Saturday evening I lead worship at Hagar’s Community Church, a new worshipping community planted inside the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW)- which is the largest women’s prison in the state of Washington and the only women’s prison with Maximum and Medium custody. The mission of Hagar’s Community Church is to be a Sanctuary for God’s Beloved Exiles at the WCCW and to proclaim the Gospel truth that God indeed loves, without measure, every individual incarcerated at the WCCW.  I love my congregation and feel privileged every Saturday to have the honor of serving this congregation.  

Most Sunday mornings I am itinerating around the state of Washington preaching and teaching at churches throughout our Presbytery and beyond about what God is up to in the walls of a prison. I’m out and about doing this work to share all of the inspirational stories from Hagar’s Community Church. I’m also out and about securing missional and financial partners who will support this new worshipping community. The reality is, because of its context Hagar’s Community Church will never be able to sustain itself the way a typical congregation does. Not only do my congregants make $.42 an hour, but it is also illegal for them to fund a prison program. Therefore, finding long term missional partners is key to our sustainability. It has been a joyful experience to witness all the people and congregations coming together to support Hagar’s Community Church.  

Because I’m so excited to find more missional partners for Hagar’s Community Church (and because I often think I can make it through anything) I had a critical lapse in judgement a couple weeks ago. A piece of background information about me- I grew up in Cleveland, TN (where it never snows) and I spent the last 8 years of my life in New Orleans (which is both flat and never has any snow). So moving to Washington State has brought me to a new place with vast mountains and weather patterns to which I am not accustomed.  

A Church in our Presbytery asked me to preach and talk about Hagar’s Community Church on a Sunday in January. This church is on Mount Rainer, but I didn’t think about how elevation changes things. I scheduled it, and . . . I thought nothing of it. The week I was scheduled to preach there were rumors of snow . . .  Again, I assumed it would be fine. The night before I looked at my weather app and saw snow . . . and of course, assumed I could get through it. I decided to give myself extra time, but saw no reason to cancel.  

I woke up early that Sunday morning, I plugged in the address is my GPS.  I headed on my way listening to my favorite podcast: Armchair Expert. Everything was fine for the majority of the trip- no problem . . . 

Then I was about 30 miles away . . . and I noticed it was snowing . . . and the snow was sticking to the roads.  

I started driving more carefully.  

I’m about 20 miles away . . . I make the turn my GPS suggests and start climbing up . . .

 I drive a mile or so . . .

The snow is getting deeper, deeper, deeper.  

I begin wondering “How I’m going to make it through this?”

For some reason I keep going . . . thinking “I made it this far, I can’t turn back now!  

Beginning to worry, I think “maybe I should have asked what the best route was to this church”

And then . . . 

My car was no longer moving forward.  I. was. stuck. 

I was stuck on a country snowy mountain road . . . I felt as alone as I have ever been. Suddenly visions from the movie Into the Wild came flashing into my mind: dying, stranded by myself . . . I turned to my phone and of course, I had no signal to make a phone call . . .

I realized in that moment, I was completely unprepared. I was not wearing clothes for a hike in the snow, I didn’t have shovel to dig myself out, and I had no way of contacting anyone for help.  

Panic. Set. In.   

What felt like a lifetime passed by . . . 

In reality it was more like 5 min – when I saw a large pickup truck towing snow mobiles climbing the road. I got out of the car and signaled that I needed help, as they got closer I saw multiple Trump 2020 stickers . . .

I began to panic again.  

But to my relief, two extremely polite men jumped out of the car and immediately knew what to do. They didn’t ask questions (like what possessed you to drive on this road?) they just helped me get my car unstuck, turned around, and gave me direction to get me safely back home.  

I thanked God for them every minute of the drive home.  

This was a morning of many failures. I never made it to the church where I was scheduled to preach. Luckily, they had a backup plan due to the poor weather conditions. I failed to know my own limits. I had fooled myself into thinking if I set my mind to something I could accomplish the task at hand. But in reality I have had no life experience to help me navigate these roads in the snow. And though I work in a prison and make it my task every week to offer grace, and love to all people no matter what is in their background, I made assumptions about the angels who rescued me because of a political sticker.  

Thank God I am not still sitting on the side of Mount Rainer in the snow, thank God for the angels sent to teach me about the log in my own eye, and thank God that I’m able to learn the lessons from a failed Sunday morning. 

Rev Lane Brubaker is the pastor of Hagar’s Community Church a 1001 New Worshipping Community planted inside the WCCW. Before moving to Washington Lane lived in New Orleans where she served as the YAV site coordinator and co founded The Okra with her husband Rev Crawford Brubaker.

Getting It Right Sometimes Takes a Few Tries. And That’s Okay.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Cindy Correll

You will make mistakes.

These words catapulted from the recesses of my mind on the regular that first year I served in Haiti. Maria Arroyo at the time was coordinator of the Caribbean and Latin America for World Mission. As I left orientation and headed to Haiti, she made sure I knew that my first year in mission service was for listening.

And messing up.

Looking back as I enter into my eighth year of this amazing life, I realize that Maria’s words were more than a warning. They were a declaration of dependence.

Just what I needed. As a recovering journalist, I’d spent that first career doing everything I could to get things right. Errors were blackmarks and hurtful. Perfection might be a stretch and unattainable, but it was the goal in every story and edition. Anything less stung. And it often hung around like an albatross.

I spent my first full month in country with a rural family. My job was to learn Haitian Creole and customs. Each day, a member of the family took me around the community and countryside

One morning after a full night’s rain I walked with Widline, who was taking off precious time studying for medical school entrance exams.

“Fè atansyon,” she said in a warning tone.

As I turned to ask what that meant, my foot hit the thick mud on the lane.

Down I went. Widline rushed to help me up, and I had to ask.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

“What does fè atansyon mean?”

“It means be careful.”

You know I’ll never forget that phrase.

I stumbled along through the months and years of my first term in Haiti making many mistakes, learning valuable lessons from most, and unfortunately, repeating a few.

I made small mistakes and big ones.

I learned lessons and language.

I was hurt, and I hurt others.

You will make mistakes.

Those words. They set me on a path to understand that it’s hard to have hits and runs if you don’t have errors.

What I learned from all my many mistakes – and the ease at which I could absorb their lessons and let them go – was that I didn’t have time to soak in the juices of all I’d gotten wrong. My role as a mission co-worker was to accompany those on the margins. That meant giving them my whole heart and attention.

On Jan. 12, I was in a small church in rural Virginia leading worship. It was my first time putting together the order of worship. I was intimidated and eager to get it all right.

The sermon was well received, and I declared that next we would affirm what we believe by reciting the Apostle’s Creed. And my mind went blank. The people in the pews looked at me, and I had nothing.

“It appears I have not memorized the words of …”
“It’s on Page 14,” at least seven people gently responded.

I turned to the page and read along.

I’d messed up.

And it was all good.

Mistakes are the holy stone in the shoe of perfection.

Mistakes pierce the ego that says, “I must get this right,” and offers the assurance that we all are in this together.

Big and small, forgivable and painful for years, mistakes are going to happen. Our best hope is to prepare and do our best.

And our best reality is that, especially in this work of ministry, how lovely that we can depend on others to gently, kindly guide us back on track.

Cindy Corell is a mission co-worker serving in Haiti. She is in Virginia now waiting for the political unrest in Haiti to settle down. She has served in Haiti with Presbyterian Hunger Program and its Joining Hands network in Haiti, FONDAMA. She can be reached at cindy.corell@pcusa.org.


Children’s Ministry, Failure, and Why Sometimes It’s Okay to Bail

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Ashley Detar Birt

Now, remember, Steven, if you run into any trouble out there, you can always bail. There’s never any shame in bailing.”- Greg Universe

The quote above comes from Steven Universe, a children’s cartoon that often promotes messages about healthy emotions and decision making to children and adults alike. It comes from Greg Universe, father of the title character, right before his son attempts something that is both very exciting and unlikely to work. Although his words are few, his message is profound: sometimes, even when we don’t feel like we should, it’s okay to stop. It can be better to abandon the plan than to try and force yourself into something that you know just isn’t going to be worth it.

I cannot think of a better lesson to apply to children’s ministry.

In my time doing children’s ministry, I have learned to come up with back up plans. Always have modifications to your activities. Always check supplies. Always test crafts and projects before doing them with kids.

None of those things helped when it came to Vacation Bible School this year.

Imagine: a week full of songs and games and Bible stories, all accompanied by little crafts and experiments to help illustrate the lessons in tangible ways. There were supposed to be robots! We were supposed to make slime! There were supposed to be happy, laughing children! It would be glorious!

It started with balloons. The experiment was simple enough: you blew up a balloon, you taped a straw to it, you put a string through the straw, and you let the air out of the balloon. In theory, it was supposed to race down the string. In reality, it was me, surrounded with colored latex scraps, covered in scotch tape, handing supplies to teachers with a “it might work?” I told myself that it was an experiment, and sometimes experiments fail. It would be a good lesson for the kids.

Next came the robots. This would be easier: tape some markers, a battery, and a motor to a cup, connect the battery to the motor, watch it wiggle all over some paper. Although it took thirty minutes to set up the motor, I knew it’d be worth it to watch the robot doodle. Except, when I got it running, it…didn’t doodle. It didn’t move at all. It just vibrated in place, and that wasn’t even strong enough to make it move. Rather than an abstract masterpiece, I ended up with hours wasted and marker bleeding through the paper onto my desk. When they arrived, I gave the project to one of the teachers to let her figure it out. We ended up having the kids color.

On the last day we were supposed to have our masterpiece: slime in a bottle. I practiced making this at my desk, and it worked beautifully! I had finally gotten something right! Then, it came time to prepare it for the kids. I have no idea how I messed up, but I knew my food coloring stained fingers and bottles full of pale green syrup were all I need to call it. It was time to bail.

Disappointed in my week and in myself, I told the teachers they could try if they wanted, but they didn’t have to do that activity. Some chose to, some didn’t. I felt like I had let everybody down by not trying harder to get things to work. As I checked in on classes, frustrated and exhausted, I noticed something. None of the kids were frustrated. None of them even noticed anything was missing. They were all having a great time learning about God! The only person who was miserable was me, who had tried so hard to stick to the plan all week instead of just bailing and moving on.

Life’s not always going to work out the way you want it to. It’s always good to try, but sometimes, trying your best isn’t going to make a situation better. You can prepare all you want, but sometimes, it’s okay to bail on your plan. Sometimes, doing that is the only way to let the joy in and let the Spirit do its work.

Rev.Ashley DeTar Birt is a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary where she obtained her M.Div. She also holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Ashley currently works as the Pastoral Fellow for Youth and Families at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York, NY with some of the most fun kids she’s ever met. Her interests include the intersections of racial justice, children and youth, interfaith communication, LGBTQ+ issues (particularly the B), and Christianity.

When she isn’t at church or doing social justice work, she enjoys writing, sound editing and theatre tech.

Two Time Reigning Failure Champion

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jess Cook and Jan Edmiston are curating a series that will explore the hidden gifts of failure. How does failure help us grow? How does it help us be more authentic with one another? How does it help us to be creative and brave in our ministries and our lives? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Jess Cook

I do failure really well.

While I’m often reticent to share news of my accomplishments, I have very little issue with standing in front of a room full of strangers and talk at length about the myriad of missteps, wrong turns, and awkward gaffes I’ve experienced in my life. In fact, my affinity for sharing my failures is why I’m writing these very words. For the last couple of years at the NEXT Church National Conference, there’s been a Fail Story Slam, where folks are invited to share stories and laughter and to lean into the awkwardness of being human, albeit in front of a group of strangers. And it so happens that I am the TWO TIME REIGNING STORY SLAM CHAMPION.

It’s not that I’m a big fan of failure, it’s just that I’ve had enough gaffes to know that if they haven’t killed me yet, they likely won’t. And as someone who values authenticity and vulnerability, sharing our failures is often a way to cut through the b.s. that’s so much a part of the world. Or, maybe it’s a way of owning and telling my own story. I identify as non-binary; and, like many people with marginalized identities, I’ve had to learn how to navigate people’s projections or assumptions about my identity, and sharing stories of my failures can often be a way of getting ahead of whatever narrative folks may have about non-binary people. As Andrea Gibson, the spoken-word poet, says in their piece Your Life:

They’re gonna keep telling your heartbeat is a pre-existing condition.
They’re gonna keep telling you are a crime of nature
and you’re gonna look at all your options, and choose conviction,
choose to carve your own heart out of a side of a cliff,
choose to spend your whole life telling secrets you owe no one till everyone, till there isn’t anyone who can insult you by calling you what you are.

Like many non-binary people, I grew up without having a word for my gender. I never identified as male, and it wasn’t until adulthood that I had language to express why calling myself female never really felt right, either. It’s no surprise to me that many of my failures are in some way around gender, where I was participating in an event specific to women or girls. Looking back, my myriad of missteps in the moments I was trying hardest to be a girl: the stumble at just the wrong time in a dance routine, slipping on my petticoat (yes, for real) in the midst of a debutante bow, or the Freudian slips at the most awkward moment, seem almost like a message from my subconscious: a reflex response to the girlhood put upon me which I tried so hard, yet failed to wear. In many ways, learning to be gentle with myself around my failed attempts at being female has taught me how to be gentle with my other mess ups.

Earlier this week, a tweet by Alexander Leon, a writer at the LGBTQ group Kaleidescope Trust, went viral. Leon’s tweet about growing up queer resonated with so many folks that The Advocate wrote a piece about it. In further tweets, Leon said that the struggle of owning his queer identity early in life is a “gift in disguise. We [queer folks] come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves.” It’s hard not to sound trite here, but my failures have been the biggest asset to learning and loving who I am; and, in turn, to loving others.

Throughout the month of January, we’ll have folks sharing stories of trial and error in their contexts. The hope is that our stories of slip ups and failures will show more of who we all are, to encourage us all to be a bit gentler with ourselves and one another; and, even more, to see the beloved Spirit weaving us together through it all.

Rev. Jess Cook is the Program & Communications Manager for More Light Presbyterians. Jess holds a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary and also attended the University of North Texas and Baylor University. Jess was the first openly non-binary person to be ordained as a Minister of The Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Prior to joining MLP, Jess was the Youth Programs Director at Side by Side, an organization in Richmond, VA serving LGBTQIA+ youth. Jess gets excited about most things, particularly the sacraments and conversations about how we can create spaces where everyone is seen in the fullness of who they are. They live in Richmond, VA.

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

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

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

by Paul Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Re-post: What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms, and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

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

This article was originally posted on November 24, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s lecture at George Mason University earlier this month.

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape, and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being love; but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.

Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.