Do Not Forget That You Are In A Holy Place

by Holly Haile Thompson

In Memoriam – Covid-19 has claimed the life of the Rev. Dr. Cecil Corbett, Nez Perce; father, PCUSA pastor, former President and Chancellor of Cook College and Theological School, AZ.  Visionary, Educator, Inspiration; Tabutne my Elder.  I honor, too, the 959,000+ around the world whose families grieve at the loss of their beloved relatives to the Covid-19 virus.   

“Nutah auwepun ut keshke ketahanit nuketoohomun”  (my heart is calm, the ocean sings while I pray my morning song)   – a Shinnecock Prayer

The following is a re-stating of my testimony to the Southampton Town Board, August 22, 2009.  11 years later almost to the day this same political body has finally agreed to observe a 6 month moratorium on construction, and to enact legal protocols when human remains are unearthed; which hardly resembles NYS Penal Law pertaining to cemetery desecration.  Justice by its nature cannot be divine to one group while denied to another. 

“There are many HOLY PLACES in this beautiful world we are blessed to call home.

  • When one travels to England to visit Holy Island, one finds Lindisfarne, an ancient place of prayer, reflection, contemplation, veneration, a sacred burial place of saints.

    Photo by Caroline Hall on Unsplash

  • If one journeys to Scotland’s tiny Isle of Iona, one finds a very old place of prayer, meditation, rumination, reverence, the sacred burial place of kings.
  • People from all over the world make pilgrimages to Mount Sinai in order to behold the ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery, respected by Muslim, Jew, Christian, and which is to this day protected, because there are people committed to safeguarding that hallowed place, believing it important for as long as possible.

“At St. Catherine’s there is a sign posted plainly for all the world to read in Arabic, and in Greek and in English these words:


“Many of our non-Shinnecock neighbors have forgotten YOU ARE IN A HOLY PLACE, and that the Shinnecock Hills – all of the Shinnecock Hills, is a HOLY PLACE an ancient burial for our people.

“We have asked you to not desecrate our HOLY PLACES; we have asked repeatedly for our Hills to be preserved, we ask continually for this land and our spiritual beliefs and our sacred connection to this land be respected. Yet time and time again you ignore what we say; over and over you draw lines on your paper, trace boundaries on your maps, sign checks in your checkbooks and record deeds in your deed books.  You think that your inadequate attempts to truly protect and care for this HOLY PLACE worthy of our gratitude.  To allow any further construction on this land is to miss the point.

“But I am not without hope – it is my hope that even now you might begin to think with your heart, and you might think a new thought about respecting your neighbors, and about regarding our HOLY PLACE, what there is left to protect of the Shinnecock Hills…”

“If, however, past behavior is the best indication of future behavior, I ought not place trust in this Board.  If there be found one human or funerary artifact, if there is found as few as one ancient relic or even as many as 10 human bodies – as was recently the case on Shelter Island – I am sadly certain that you would continue with your plans to completely dominate the sacred lands of my people, and to commence with your vision of dangerous overdevelopment, destruction and pollution to our HOLY PLACE.

“There have been human burials found on the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course and, even so, it is not held in reverence by those who now occupy that land or by those whose play and commerce continues on those hills.

“There have been human burials disturbed on the campus of the Southampton College and it is not ‘held apart’ or ‘set aside’ in reverence as a HOLY PLACE by those who currently occupy that land, business continues on those hills, too.

“It appears that the human remains unearthed on the Golf Course and on the College Campus and in other places in the Shinnecock Hills are not respected because they are remains of Native People; it seems because they are not the remains of White people whose local graves and holy places are regarded as worthy of respect, construction (as you call it) and destruction (as we call it) in Shinnecock Hills  – a place called even by non-Natives ‘archeologically sensitive’ – is continued with impunity.

“It is my observation that the concern of this Township and its government is to, along with its current legal action against the Shinnecock Nation claiming that we do not exist, and that we do not have the right to exist, continue to do with our sacred land precisely what you wish, and to do exactly what makes the most money for those who deal in money, and to do whatever translates into the greatest ‘political profit’ for those who deal in power, votes and public opinion.

“Where are the HOLY PLACES OF THE SHINNECOCK?  The HOLY PLACES OF THE SHINNECOCK lie beneath the grand homes and palaces and golf courses and tennis courts of our neighbors who have yet to understand that this land is more than merely their passing property investment – it is our life – and you care very little for the life of my Shinnecock People as demonstrated daily here in the ‘heart of the Hamptons at the height of the season’.  It is my hope that you will show me something new tonight.”

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

Deep Rural

by Catherine Neelly Burton

“Deep Rural” is a phrase I learned from the Reverend Charles Ayers. Raised outside of NYC and in New England, seminary educated on the West Coast, Charles has lived in the deep rural for nearly 50 years.  He describes deep rural as a community that is at least 60 miles removed from a city.  Deep rural is the kind of place no one in the U.S. pays attention to unless there’s a disruption in the food supply chain.

Charles and his wife (now deceased) moved to western Kansas to her family’s farm.  As Charles learned to be a farmer he connected with the small churches in western Kansas.  

As far back as the 1970’s (when there was the staff and means to do so) the presbytery paid little attention to these congregations.  Some of them could still afford pastors.  Charles moderated sessions for those who couldn’t and filled pulpits.  Charles was strongly connected to the national tent makers group within the denomination.  He can tell stories of attempts made and challenges faced by tent makers for decades.  

Today there is not a single installed pastor in the western half of the Presbytery of Southern Kansas.  Garden City Presbyterian is in transition and hopes to eventually call a pastor.  Garden City has a population between 25,000-30,000.  It is a hub for commerce and medicine and provides services that might normally be found in a much bigger community.  If you need something Garden City can’t provide, your biggest cities are four hours west (Colorado Springs, CO), four hours east (Wichita, KS), and three-and-a-half hours south (Amarillo, TX).

Photo by Mary Hammel on Unsplash

Ten years ago, Charles invited the PCUSA churches in Lakin, Leoti, and Tribune, Kansas, into a conversation.  These three churches now function as a virtual single congregation with three sites.  This virtual church created a steering committee and put together a preaching pool.  They gather when there is a 5th Sunday for a meal, fellowship, sometimes worship, and sometimes study.  Their goal is to affirm each other’s ministry and help each become better at what they are able to do.  They support and pray for each other. 

Early on in their partnership, the three churches invited the Reverend Bob Wade to come work with them.  Bob is retired and lives in Ohio, but his first call was in Tribune, KS.  The churches came up with things they wanted to be trained in, and Bob served as their ministry coach.  For ten weeks they focused on communion training for elders, learning to pray better publicly, and how to be intentional in pastoral care when visiting and calling.  

The church members were empowered to lead their churches in ways they hadn’t before.  They realized that they didn’t need to wait for a pastor, that they could be the church.  In time, Charles connected with the Reverend Terry Woodbury.  Terry lives outside of Kansas City but had farmland in western Kansas.  Charles got Terry hooked on this vision, and when he spent time out west, he offered his skills in planning to the three churches.  

The churches got more involved in their communities, too.  The Leoti church will likely be the first to close, and as one step in preparing for that, they created a non-profit called Agora.  Agora is intended to strengthen the community.  

The church building is already used by groups like 4H and community theatre.  In time, Agora will take over the building.  This means that the community keeps it, and it is cared for.  Leoti still has a manse which it rents, and they give that income to Agora.  The church in Lakin has income from an endowment and gives to Agora.  

Churches in the deep rural were decades ahead of what churches in larger towns and cities are experiencing now (numerical decline and struggles with building maintenance), and they may be decades ahead of us in how to be church.  The discipleship coach model of congregational empowerment is one that we need to consider as a creative possibility and not a sign of defeat.  

Charles likes to use exile and remnant language regarding these deep rural churches; they are the remnant and don’t know in what form the church will rise up in the future.  We should pay attention because it may very well be the deep rural that shows us the way forward. 

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Mission as Resistance and Struggle

by Rafael Vallejo, Ph.D.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”

                                                                                                                                    –  Arundhati Roy

Christian Mission has a long history and the meaning of the word “mission” has evolved through time. It used to be that  when people talked of “missions” they were referring to people from the North who went overseas to “evangelize” or live with poor communities in the villages in the Global South. These people were called “missionaries”. 

Today’s theologies of mission contain big words like evangelization, prophetic dialogue, contextualization, inculturation, inter-religious dialogue, common witness, liberation. 

What I would like us to do here is to revisit how different understandings of Mission evolved through church history.  Kwame Bediako from Ghana argues that church history is mission history.  

In the first century of the Christian movement, many of  the first ecclesial communities believed that the promised return of the Christ was happening anytime soon. The goal of mission then was to “preach the gospel” to as many people as possible so they may  be “saved”. Christianity spread from Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean world until it became the official religion of the Empire in 380 CE. 

Given the diversity of groups and gospels, the Church focused its energies on “right belief” and in the process went to battle against those who held other beliefs (e,g. heretics). Seven ecumenical councils (e.g.Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon) worked to create right language around Christian belief in the form of doctrines and creeds. In 1054, the Church of the East broke away from the Church of the West over  doctrinal  differences. 

During the 15th century,  powerful countries in Europe started explorations into distant lands. In what is now referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery”, mission came to be understood as “civilizing mission” that went hand in hand with “discovering” and taking ownership of new lands  and turning them into colonies. Civilizing missions were conceived as bringing “the light of the gospel” to “the heart of darkness”, the backward, uncivilized colored indigenous peoples in the colonies. 

In the 20th century, after the experience of two world wars, former colonies struggled and won their independence. People from former colonies started to migrate and settle in the countries of their colonizers (eg. UK, France, USA). Migration gave rise to pluralist societies marked by a diversity of worldviews, languages, cultures, religions and traditions. By this time, the center of World Christianity had shifted to the Global South.

Now in the 21st century, much of the language around Christian mission has changed but some of the previously held interpretations are still present. In “Together Towards Life” (TTL) the World Council of Churches (WCC) during its 10th General Assembly in Busan, South Korea (2013) spoke of Mission as “resistance and struggle”. This is the frame I am working with in this series of blogs on “Refugees and Resistance: Enacting God’s mission in liminal spaces.”(Vallejo, 2020)

I think of Missio Dei as engaging the powers and domination systems that are operative in today’s world. I want to re-describe the heart of the Triune God’s work as struggle in a world dominated by “Empire”. Empire as defined by the Accra Confession 2004  refers to “the convergence of economic, political, cultural, geographic, and military imperial interests, systems, and networks for the purpose of amassing political power and economic wealth.” Empire is what stands in opposition to God’s purposes for the world. They “obstruct the fullness of life that God wills for all” (TTL 45)

I find support for this view in resistance literature embedded in the biblical narrative. In the people’s struggle in Egypt, the narrator shows the fragility of the Pharaoh’s power compared to the mighty arm of the deity, later to be known as YHWH. The same theme of resistance and struggle runs through apocalyptic literature in the First and Second Testaments. 

In many ways, border crossings performed by refugees/migrants today is an act of resistance against nation-states who consider it their absolute right to decide who may or may not enter their borders. Refugees are resisting not having voice or visibility by breaking the silence and showing up in huge numbers at international borders, even in the midst of the current pandemic. While this kind of resistance may not be enough to improve their situation or change the system, at the very least they hope to raise awareness that something needs to be done. I believe our God struggles with them as they travel through liminal spaces.

I invite us to think of our mission as mobilizing the church for social engagement and prophetic witness and the flourishing of all of God’s creation. Should we as Church choose to stand alongside refugees and migrants, we need to be prepared to resist and struggle alongside them.

Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Rafael is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and his pieces focus on the experience of refugees and mission. 


On the Holy Way

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In the closing worship service of the 2018 National Gathering in Baltimore, Rev. Kathryn Johnston invites us to consider the holy way through her engaging sermon. Consider using this resource for any group looking to consider doing things a new way (a committee, a leadership body, a small group, a class, or a youth group) or anyone looking to be filled and inspired by this prophetic preaching.

Have you ever been side-swiped on the holy way?

Have you ever almost missed someone on the holy way because you were on the holier-than-thou way?

How have our churches missed people on the holy way because they are on the holier-than-thou way?

Kathryn says, “Any time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side. Friends, we can’t stay where we are. God calls us to the holy way. It’s a risk. We prefer our comfort zones. We like what we know. The more we dig in the more comfortable our rut becomes. Soon its almost impossible to move us as we have dug ourselves so far in that we are surrounded by protective barriers. A foxhole of the familiar. And we are moving nowhere.”

What is your foxhole of the familiar? Where are you most comfortable?

Kathryn invites us to get out of our ruts and move to unfamiliar places – to go willingly into the wilderness so God can do a new thing because that is the holy way.

Where might God be calling you? Where might God be calling your gathered community?

What Does Belonging Look Like?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Tali Hairston gave a keynote at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in which he used the story of Naomi and Ruth to talk about belonging, equity, story, interrogating whiteness, and the power of transformational relationships.

This keynote will be particularly interesting to:

  • a congregation that is committed to “diversity”
  • white congregation consciously thinking about its own whiteness
  • anyone going on a mission trip, and
  • a mission committee thinking about charity, equity, and justice.
  • It could also provide the basis for some great senior high youth group conversation.

After you watch the keynote, consider these questions:

  • Belonging, Tali argues, is a key indicator of the possibility of transformation. He asks the: What does belonging look like for you? Describe the word belonging for you.
  • Tali helps to contrast charity and transformation. In the system in which Boaz lived, he was supposed to act charitably toward Ruth and Naomi. Charity invites us to do FOR people, rather than WITH them. To offer charity suggests that we don’t believe in people’s capacity or ability. They are not our equals. We fail to see that they are fully made in the image of God. Advocacy based in mutuality, in contrast, leads to transformation. Boaz chooses to work with Ruth and Naomi to advocate for their redemption. Think about the mission projects of your congregations. Which ones promote a mutually engaged path of transformation? Which ones promote charity? Are there ways to do more transformation and less charity?
  • Transactional relationships sustain marginalization, while transformational relationships can lead to justice. To engage in transformation, those with power have to become uncomfortable. Boaz, for example, became uncomfortable when Ruth shows up at his feet. Reflect on a time when a relationship led you to discomfort that ultimately led toward transformation.
  • Tali notes that we speak fluently about things we think about all that time. People who are part of the dominant culture don’t have to think about their own cultural markers because the culture is assumed. This has the effect of folks in the dominant culture not being practiced in talking about their own identities in complex ways. Tali presented five lenses and invites everyone to tell their own story using these five lenses: education, belief system, ethnicity/race, class, gender. Try it!

What it Takes to Transform

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In their testimony at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Heidi Husted Armstrong and Scott Lumsden talk about the story of First Seattle Presbyterian Church – a church that went from being one of the biggest churches in the country to total membership collapse. This 30-minute video is a resource for any church group – the session, committees, or teams – to dig into what it takes to transform into the new thing in which God is calling them.

Heidi talks about three things that keep her “hanging in there.” Consider those three things below.

1. I have never been more free to say “I do not know what I’m doing.” How many 5 year plans have been run through this place? Like I’m going to come up with the one that works?! The phrase solvitur ambulando has been attributed to Saint Augustine, which translates as “it is solved by walking.” It means to just take the next step, and the next step, and God will show the way.

What is the hard thing before you in ministry that you need to take the next step toward? What might be an initial first step?

2. Letting go of “churchiness” so that I can embrace the quirkiness, the uniqueness, and the messiness that is in this place. Let me be present for what you have for us today. Let me show up. Help me show up for what is.

What is quirky, unique, and messy about what is in your place? How might you be more present to show up for what is?

3. Remember God is a God of resurrection. Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing (Frederick Buechner). Being in a struggling church mean there’s lots of room for God to show up! There is one Lord of the Church who is still in the business of raising from the dead what is dead in us. Raising what is dead through us. Raising what is dead around us. Raising what is dead in spite of us.

What is dying around you? What might God be resurrecting and raising up in your midst? What are the spaces in your context where there is room for God to show up?

Scott closes their testimony by saying that the church has to admit we no longer have all the answers and instead need to start asking questions of ourselves, of our neighborhoods, and of God.

What questions do you need to start asking of yourself, of your neighborhood, and of God? What questions keep you up at night?

Addressing the Evil That is Racism

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In her testimony during the 2016 National Gathering, Jessica Vazquez Torres offers a strong challenge to the church to get serious about addressing the evil that is racism in meaningful ways. This 30 minute video is a resource for leaders and congregations who are already talking about race, racism, and white supremacy and want to lean into that tension. It is a challenging personal introduction for leaders who want to deepen their own wrestling with racism and white supremacy.

As you finish the video, what word or phrase describes how you feel after watching this? (in a group setting, be sure to allow for complexity of reaction and varied reactions)What is hard to hear in what Jessica says? How might you lean into that discomfort?

Jessica offers four insights in addressing racism that the church needs to be clearer about:

  1. Racism can’t be understood aside from white supremacy.
  2. History matters.
  3. Racism is structural, not relational.
  4. All of us are made complicit.

Thinking about your own context or your own life, which of these insights is most recognizable to you? Which is the most daunting?

What’s one step toward learning you can do in one of these areas?

Jessica she offers four actions to take:

  1. Own your complicity.
  2. Develop a thicker, more complex, intersectional analysis of racism.
  3. Be political (because racism is lived out in the public sphere).
  4. Talk about whiteness and the benefits to white people, not just the oppression of people of color.

Which of these actions could you lean into most easily as an individual or as a congregation? What’s one step you/your church could take?

Which of these actions would be the most difficult to lean into? Is there an initial step you could take toward that larger action?

Holy Spirit, this is a challenging word. Help us to hear your liberating promise within this challenge. Open us to the tension and discomfort that we pray is in service of sanctification. Amen.

Field Guide Preview: Storytelling as Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s note: The full field guide is now available for free download! Check it out –

Telling Stories That Matter

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

by Shawna Bowman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they true? Are they encouraging or discouraging?

Who gets to tell them?

What are our stories of risk and failure?

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

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

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

The Surprising Benefit of Evaluation

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

by Casey Thompson

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

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

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.

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