Seeing the Possibilities in Ministry

by Jessica Tate

Back in 2011, at the first NEXT Church National Gathering, Joe Clifford gave a short talk in which he introduced the chemistry concept of the “adjacent possible.” The concept, so far as I understand, is that specific chemical reactions are possible based on what elements are next to one another. Clifford suggested it is important for the church to pay attention to what is next to us because there are numerous possibilities available to us based on what is adjacent to us. Too often, moving down well-worn paths, we forget that other possibilities exist. On the flip side, we are limited by what is next to us. There are set possibilities of how elements interact with one another. Hydrogen and oxygen combine for water. If you have hydrogen and carbon, you can’t get water, no matter how much you wish it.

The concept of adjacent possible has stayed with me since 2011. In moments when I have felt stuck, it has encouraged me to take a step back and look at the adjacent possible. What combinations might exists that I have been ignoring? What reaction am I wishing for but don’t have the right elements in the right places?

NEXT Church gatherings – local or national – seek to connect leaders to one another, to spark imagination, to offer an honest reflection about the challenges confronting the church, remind us that God’s Spirit is up to something, and encourage us to see possibilities to which we had been blind before.

In 2014, Kara Root told the story of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church and the congregation’s creative reimagining of a rhythm for worship in their community. As is true for many congregations, Kara described Lake Nokomis as a congregation that had declined numerically and yet tried to keep up with all the demands and programmatic offerings of a larger congregation. The result was exhaustion. Congregational burnout. Together, the congregation undertook a serious study of Sabbath which led them to be more honest with one another about their energy, their capacity, and a desire to practice the act of Sabbath keeping together as a community. The creative result was a change in their worship pattern so that some weeks they meet on Sunday morning for worship. Other weeks they meet on Saturday evening for a simple supper and evening prayer, preserving Sunday for communal Sabbath keeping. Some weeks they lead worship at a local home for children. A radical change in the rhythm of life was borne out of honesty, theological reflection, and Christian practice.

All of the speakers and leaders at NEXT Church gatherings bring their gifts as an offering to the church in hope and in faith – not with the expectation that everything shared will be directly relevant across all contexts, but trusting that hearing testimony from leaders reflecting on their own contexts might spark a new insight for your own. As an organization, NEXT Church creates space for these offerings, recognizing that though we cannot control what is heard, what takes root, and what is acted upon, we trust that these interactions bear fruit over time.

This month, we are going to revisit some 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.

As we continue to journey through Lent and as I, along with other NEXT Church leaders begin an audit process this week with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I am reminded again of the powerful keynote Allan Boesak gave at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering. During the Q&A, a participant noted the church’s long silence on racism and asked him, “what does the church need to give up moving forward?” Boesak responded with a story.

South African author Alan Paton wrote a book about a principal in Soweto, where the 1976 uprising began. The principal was a gentle guy, not controversial, not one who goes to protests. “Very much like me,” said Allan Boesak. He had many friends in the white community because he did not come to their tea parties to talk about politics. “He was reasonable.”

One day the whites saw him sitting on a stage at a rally. Then the next time they saw him and he spoke at the rally. Then he was in the front leading the march. And they said to him, “What has happened to you? We depended on you! Now you are making things worse.”

He responded to them: One day I will die and the Great Judge in heaven will ask me, “where are your wounds?” And I will have to say, “I don’t have any.” And when I say, “I don’t have any,” the Great Judge will say to me, “Was there then nothing to fight for?”

Boesak continued: In the end the one who will ask you about your wounds will not be me, will not be #blacklivesmatter, will not be the women, will not be the children. It will be the one who appeared before Thomas and said to Thomas, “look at my hands and my feet and put your hand in my side.”

“I pray God,” Boesak concluded, “we will have something to show.”


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

Hope For What’s Next

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jeff Bryan

Who am I to summarize the blog posts from this month? Who am I to conclude these thoughts? I can only say, “Amen!” Amen to Liz Crumlish, our sister from the Church of Scotland, who said it so well: “We are engaged in a movement not a programme.” Amen to Yena Hwang, articulating a theology of death and rising, while summarizing ministry so succinctly: “So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be.” Amen to the vulnerability of these contributors, sharing their personal experiences in the difficult work of the faith. I could go through each of this month’s blog posts and find something to “Amen,” but I’ll spare you the systematic approach. Instead, I’ll simply say I’m grateful to be in such fine company.

I’m also impressed by the restraint of our blog contributors. They have chosen to engage the content of the conference with honesty and integrity, whereas I have rewritten this paragraph 400 times, deleting screed after screed. The mid-twentieth century, White, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented, culturally-cozy, Main Line church, and it’s perceived loss of privilege and status… I could just scream! But not our writers. They have better, more faithful things to do.

If we are in a desert, it truly is a desert in bloom. So much good is happening out there! Almighty God is still Sovereign. Jesus Christ will never stop calling forth a church to worship, grow in faith, support one another, and serve the ones he called “the least of these.” The Spirit of Christ will continue to send us out, abiding with us every step of the way, comforting, encouraging, and challenging us. That is, until we reach that glorious country where “there is day without night, light without darkness, and life without shadow of death forever.” But there I go preaching again.

When I hear Presbyterians digging into the faith, thinking critically about ministry in their local (and often difficult and painful) contexts, and doing their very best to follow Christ, I feel inspired. I feel hope. I feel my heart yearning for whatever’s next, with all the NEXT Church puns included.
Here’s to whatever God has planned for us today. Here’s to taking it one day at a time, making the next best decision, and keeping our eyes open for the presence of God. Here’s to the future and the NEXT Church.


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

Letting Anxiety Go

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mads Benishek

We find ourselves in the wilderness for all kinds of reasons: to sulk (Jonah), to hide (Elijah), to mourn (Ruth), because we are called there (Jesus), and because we have no other option (Hagar). We don’t go there willingly most of the time. The church didn’t choose the wilderness. Indeed, we’ve feared it and puffed ourselves up, shunning it and pretending that we have all the answers and have no need of the wilderness. Yet the wilderness could care less about our self-importance and best-laid plans.

So here we find ourselves: plunged into, deposited, or chased out into the wilderness. After panicking a bit, we sit on the ground with our back to a tree trunk and stare into the sky for a while, thinking, “Now what?” Our defenses drop. We look and for once really see what’s around us, if only because we no longer have anything to distract us, out here where the sky is huge and rocky cliffs rise in the distance. It’s then that the wilderness surprises us. We notice a spring of water coming up from dry ground, a deer leaping for joy, the wind whispering, “What if…?” and “Look!”

The wilderness surprised me in small ways at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering: a corner with pillows for sitting on the floor during keynote and worship, communion stations that seemed to pop up all around the room, roadside markers throughout for us to leave notes or mementos or just things we’d forgotten. The spirituality studio where I played with paper, scissors and glue for a while. As I noticed and explored these treasures of the wilderness, giving my curiosity free reign, I felt my fear and anxiety melt away, becoming humble, open, learning.

I wonder if the church is starting to do this too. I wonder if we’re realizing that we have so many wondrous things to learn once we let all our very adult-seeming anxieties go and we fumble around, ask questions, listen, explore, and thereby discover gifts, insights, tools, and beauty that our very self-important gaze, with our very adult-seeming blinders, would have overlooked.

At the Gathering we learned from community organizers, academics, artists, deacons, elders, businesspeople, and musicians in addition to pastors and academics. The Spirit is in the wilderness, stirring up these prophets, apostles and teachers in and beyond our midst. The Spirit is in the wilderness and at the Gathering I saw the inklings of the church stepping out to follow, a child-like and humble church with big eyes and an open heart eager to learn, to try, to wonder, and even to play. I hope the church, that is each of us, follows our childlike curiosity, that we open ourselves to being surprised by each person, ordained or not, churched or not, and by each place where we find ourselves. Then, together with our siblings in all walks of life, we’ll wonder at and celebrate and join the Holy Spirit at work all around us.


Mads Benishek (he/him/his) is a recent seminary graduate and candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. Currently Mads leads an LGBTQ+ dinner church in north-central New Jersey and is starting a young adult group focused on spirituality, the environment, and local food.

Veering Off the Holy Way

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Debbie Fagans

The NEXT Church National Gathering has always been a rejuvenating experience for me. As a gray-head, seeing all the young pastors and lay persons gives me hope for our denomination. Maybe God is doing a new thing in us after all.

This year’s gathering did not disappoint in this matter. I’m not sure I went believing that I personally was in a wilderness and had to die and rise again. But who can listen to Billy Honor with his vivid stories of fire engines or ice cream cones being shared – take a lick – and not realize that there is a spirit awakening our staid Presbyterians?

Or who can hear Jennifer Barchi with her hilarious story of taking her youth group on a camping trip and yelling for Cliff, the other adult, to come out and save them and not realize that we too, like Jennifer, are adults and need to rise to the occasion.

While all the speakers moved me with their stories, whether humorous, serious, or learned, it wasn’t until the last speaker, Kathryn Johnston spoke, that I heard what I think God brought me there to hear.

The Isaiah passage had tickled my mind throughout the conference.

“Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!’”

As I grow older and look back on all I can’t do anymore, it is a comfort to feel that God will strengthen my weak hands and my very feeble knees. I need that strength both literally and figuratively. As we take on new responsibilities in starting a free, after school tutoring program in a low-income area of our city, I need to hear the Lord telling me to be strong and not fearful. God will be with us in this endeavor.

But hearing Kathryn’s humorous story of their car breaking down in a part of our country not known for its liberality and that she almost missed seeing that the “mom & pop” who helped them were people traveling on the Holy Way because she was on the “holier than thou” way, really struck a chord.

“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way…”

How often – especially now in our political climate – have I been on the “holier than thou” way? I’m afraid to admit, even to myself, that it has been way too many times. I can be very judgmental. Why can’t “these” people see how awful the present occupant of the White House is? Or why can’t “those” people realize we need to cut carbon emissions? We only have one planet. Or why can’t “those” women realize we’re not pro-abortion? We’re pro-choice.

I’m so busy trying to be right that I don’t notice that I have veered off the “Holy Way.” I miss seeing the humanity in the people I put down. But even here, God comes to my rescue.

“…no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”

What a comfort that is, Lord! I am often such a fool. Help me to realize when I have fallen off the Holy Way. Help me to get off my high-horse and look at those who travel with me and are loved by you as much as I am.

And together we can “come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon our heads;
we shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”


Debbie Fagans is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Albany, NY.  She is also the volunteer executive director of the South End Neighborhood Tutors, also known as Wizard’s Wardrobe. She has a background in education and taught elementary school in PA and NJ. She also worked as program coordinator for literacy volunteers and trained adults to teach adults in Troy.

This Connectional Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Angela Ryo

The first time I attended a NEXT Church National Gathering was three years ago. I was in my first call as a resident minister — a two-year position for recent seminary grads to explore every aspect of ministry in a large congregational setting. Going to the National Gathering was a natural progression of what I wanted out of ministry: to imagine a different church, a different set of tools for ministry, and life-transformative outcome and not just soul-draining output.

So I went for the first time, looking for others who were doing ministry differently and wanting to learn and connect with them. That particular year, there was a workshop titled, “Do Something Else.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for. It was led by three very energetic (I mean, “exactly-how-many-cups-of-coffee-did-you-have-this-morning?” energetic!) pastors who were doing ministry differently. They sure LOOKED crazy! But as crazy as they were, by the end of the workshop, I remember looking at one of them in particular — Nate — and thinking, “how cool would it be to work with someone like him, who can imagine a different way to BE the church!” But he was all the way from Delaware and I was in Michigan — fat chance that would ever happen!

The next time I saw Nate was the following year at the National Gathering. He had accepted a call at a church in Michigan and he was looking to put together a team. I had my first informal interview with him between workshops. And yup, you guessed it — he’s now my head of staff. That’s just a prime example of what NEXT Church is all about: bringing total strangers together in surprising and awesome ways!

This year, I came to the National Gathering with my boss — the one I met at a National Gathering two years ago. We dreamed together as we watched Ignite presentations about Pres House and Serve GR and asked each other, “Why aren’t we doing this at our church?” During David Leong’s keynote, we thought about how we can help our church be at the forefront of change by lifting up artists as prophets and adding fuel to their imagination. Having enjoyed my time with old and new friends, I left the National Gathering feeling rejuvenated and refreshed with a renewed hope for the Church.

I am no longer a resident minister whose job description is to be curious and to dream and experiment. In the busyness of everyday ministry, curiosity and imagination often take the back seat because they feel like luxuries I can’t afford. However, reflecting on my experience from the National Gathering, I am reminded of the importance of practicing the following in my ministry:

  1. Interaction with ALL KINDS of people (even those you think had too many cups of coffee!).
  2. Integration of what I learn from them into my daily life as well as my ministry (workshops are great at that).
  3. Imagination of what the church OUGHT to be and CAN be (Ignite conversations will do that for ya!).
  4. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be transformational rather than transactional in all of our relationships both in our church and community (David’s keynote hit the spot).
  5. Invitation to others to join and dream with me in my ministry and vice versa (that’s NEXT Church, y’all!).

I hope you will keep dreaming with me until the next National Gathering! And who knows? You might end up meeting your head of staff there just like I did!


Angela Ryo is an assistant pastor for Christian Formation at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In her previous life, she was a high school English teacher in Chicago, where she grew up. She loves to watch food documentaries and horror movies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which is which.

The Wilderness Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Liz Crumlish

Two years ago, I left a pastoral charge in the Church of Scotland to work on a project that seeks to transition congregations from maintenance to mission and from survival to flourishing.

Through a network of residential conferences, mentoring and learning communities, we seek to journey together, discovering God already at work in our communities and taking up God’s invitation to join in. Support, collegiality, and accountability are built in as we do theology together and as we respond to God’s mission in our many different contexts. We are engaged in a movement, not a programme.

That was why the theme of this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering, The Desert In Bloom, struck a chord. I was keen to find out how others were grappling with themes of dying and renewal in the church.

I was not disappointed. It was refreshing and encouraging to be with other church leaders who are not afraid to grapple with how to be church in the wilderness of today’s culture while remaining “rooted in the institution” of church, working out what wholeness looks like in community in the knowledge that “whole people heal their own communities.”

In opening worship, it was stated: “The church is in a searching season of wilderness. This is a message not of despair but of hope,” and “Stop complaining about the church you are part of and start being the church you envision.”

Throughout the gathering, there was an honesty about wilderness being an inevitable experience of leadership. And, in communion, there was the assurance that “We are held by a love we are not required to deserve.”

David Leong urging us to consider the “abandoned places of empire,” in their decay, becoming “fertile soil for renewal and rebirth,” and our call to spread the gospel through “compelling not conquering,” encouraged me to allow such places to “act as a mirror of what we really believe about our life together.”

Jonathan Walton’s words, “When it comes to Jesus, every act of grace is accompanied by an uncompromising critique of corrupt systems,” are the words with which I am currently wrestling, as I seek to speak “not just truth to power but truth to power in love.” And then there are Kathryn Johnston’s words in worship: “Every time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side.”

While there was a comprehensive selection of workshops, it was the in-between conversations, the connections made, the stories told, the testimonies shared that really made the trip across the pond worthwhile. I am profoundly grateful to all those who welcomed me and allowed me to be part of a journey of hope in the wilderness and signs of the desert in bloom.

And I look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation and the pilgrimage.


Liz Crumlish is a minister in the Church of Scotland currently working on a National Renewal Project in the church. She lives on the west coast of Scotland and blogs about her work at: www.pathofrenewal.blogspot.com Liz writes for Spill the Beans, is on the board of RevGalBlogPals and contributed to the book: There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.)

A Public Moral Framework

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Amanda Pine

In an age where every church worker has a blog, the questions: “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to become?” reign supreme in the public leader’s mind. Like it or not, every person employed by a church becomes a public persona of that congregation; thus, the establishment of an unwavering moral framework becomes imperative to an individual’s presence – both in person and virtually. Jonathan Walton’s keynote at the NEXT Church National Gathering helped me to envision how a moral framework might be created, for those behind the curve.

Define Your Moral Framework- How do you guide your behavior? How do you know the difference between right and wrong? When you are solving a problem, on what basis do you make your decision? When you define your moral framework, lead with it. Make it a part of your sermons, your blog posts, your newsletter articles, and any other communication that you can think of. The more often you reiterate your thought process, the better. People may not agree with your moral framework, but they will understand where you are coming from.

Know You Might Be Wrong- Walton indicated that every preacher has to deal with public disdain and contempt. However, it may not always be because you’re speaking truth to power in love and you have such a strong prophetic sensibility. Sometimes, the disdain and contempt comes because we’re just jerks. Acknowledging that your moral framework is not infallible is an important step to overcoming our inner jerk – and recapturing the humility that comes with ministry.

Take Critique Seriously- Along the same lines, church leaders hear both praise and contempt on a weekly basis. Perhaps, as a response to a sermon, a newsletter article, or something that they posted on their Facebook wall. Respond to critique with the same love that you would speak truth in any other circumstance. Just as you hold those in power accountable, the congregation should hold their leadership accountable.

Know the Slide- Every moral framework, according to Walton, should slide based on the situation that one finds themselves in. For example, if part of your moral framework is that you partner and advocate for the most vulnerable group of people, that may change based on the space you find yourself in. While the moral framework itself does not change, who you align with in a particular moment might shift. Be attentive to such changes.

It seems to me that a public moral framework prevents an individual from getting caught in the trap of partisan politics. They can transcend allegiance to a particular side, and more effectively listen to those that they serve. Furthermore, no one is caught off guard thinking that the leader aligns with them on every issue. The development of a moral framework is a great place to start for those feeling called to boldly proclaim the truth.


Amanda Pine is director of Christian faith formation at King’s Grant Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, VA. A graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Amanda has previously served churches in Newport News, VA, and Chesapeake, VA. She is passionate about social justice, community issues, and is an avid learner. Amanda and her husband live at the Virginia Beach oceanfront with their two cats, and are expecting their first human child in June.

Ministry on the Brink of Death

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Yena Hwang

Each year, the NEXT Church National Gathering creates a time and space for me to think theologically upon relevant topics that keep me engaged, informed, and excited in my ministry. This year’s gathering was no different. This year’s theme helped me to reflect upon these questions: “What is dying? What needs to die? Where/what are the signs of resurrection after the death?” This intentional time allowed me to reflect theologically upon these matters with colleagues in a communal setting, as I continue to respond to God’s call upon my life.

This year’s theme strengthened my faith in the promise of resurrection. The problem is that in order to experience resurrection, you must first experience death. Death is an intricate part of life that most people do not like to talk about, until it is unavoidable. It is scary to think about death, because it is the great unknown. It is sad to think about our loved ones not existing in the way they used to exist, where we can see, hear, touch, and hold them, and spend time with them in meaningful ways. There is no argument; death brings sadness. However, death also brings a new way of being and relating to the world.

There are many deaths we experience along on our way to physical death. These deaths are more subtle and they come so quietly that we do not even realize it until much later. Idealisms die with realisms setting in. Expectations die with sustained disappointments. Dreams and desires die with harsh realities of surviving. Our sense of worth dies when our worth is tethered to the values of the world measured in dollars or skin colors. Whether we realize it or not, we have practiced death and dying in various ways.

What used to be is no longer what it is…

The Church is experiencing these kind of non-physical deaths more obviously than before, it seems. Nothing completely new (remember Ecclesiastes?), but the hyper-connected world we live in makes us more acutely aware of this. The sky is falling! The Church is dying! What are we to do? How are we do respond and react?

The ministry to the people on the brink of death and pastoring to those who are left behind to carry on the burdens of living is an important part of our calling. Any minister would tell you that tending to matters of death – all the various ways that death disrupts people’s lives – is an integral part of our ministry. We know how to show up and be present for those who are dying and grieving; we know how to hold families through their grief and give them the words when they have no words to express their grief and allow the healing process to take place with meaningful rituals of our rich Christian tradition.

So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be. We use ancient words to give their grief meaning. We allow our rituals to guide them. We hold people through their anxieties, grief, and fear of the unknown, and pastor them through their loss of “what once used to be.” We know how to do that. And we remind them of God’s promise for them to consider: resurrection.

What if we were to look at “deaths” as ceasing to exist in the way we once existed, in order to exist in another way that cannot be fathomed? What if we were to look at death as a doorway through which we find ourselves rising into another existence…a doorway to experiencing the resurrection? What if we were to minister to the communities going through death with this theology undergirding all our work? How would that change our attitude, our actions and our messages? It will look different. It still won’t be easy, but I feel more confident that I can show up to do that work. What is dying is the old self – what is rising is the new creation in Christ that will usher in the kingdom of God. May it be so.


Yena Hwang is associate pastor of Christian formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in NJ and M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Theological Seminary in KY, and recently completed her training as a life coach. Yena’s passion is around cultivating healthy relationships and creating meaningful experiences that nurture people’s faith and spirituality. As such, she loves to hang out with people around eat good food and make observations about intersections of life. She is married to her best friend and a mother of two teenaged boys, who keep her real and with it!

Wandering in the Wilderness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Megan McMillan

Back in September, I read Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Just like all of her other books, TED Talks, and podcast appearances, I was in tears by the end. Brené Brown is basically my personal life coach. Thus, I have been ruminating on the idea of wilderness for a few months. In her book, Brown tells us that the wilderness is a place of belonging and a sacred place, “[The wilderness] is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, it’s the bravest and the most sacred place you will ever stand.”

Thanks to Brown, I feel the wilderness is a place that can be lonely and terrifying, yet it can also be so beautiful and exciting. The scripture we focused on during the gathering reassured us of that. “The wilderness and dry land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom (Isaiah 35: 1).”

As a denomination, the PC(USA) has been wandering in the wilderness for a while now. As a seminary student, I am so sick of hearing people say that the church is dying. Prior to my seminary career, I served as a youth director for six years. People always say that the youth are the future of the church, but I firmly believe that young people are the church right now. How can anyone possibly think the church is dying where you are amongst 6,000+ youth at Presbyterian Youth Triennium? How can anyone think the church is dying when you’re sitting in Anderson Auditorium with over 1,000 college students at Montreat College Conference? How can anyone think the church is dying when our seminaries are full of eager twenty-something’s ready to serve our church? If you think the church is dying, you are looking in all the wrong places. We are simply wandering in the wilderness.

I really resonated with the sermon on Tuesday night by Jennifer Barchi. Rev. Barchi shared my feelings in that the wilderness is not always an undesirable place. The church is merely evolving into something different. As people of God, we must evolve with it and transform it into something new. There is death in the wilderness, but that gives us the opportunity of holy rising. This dying will not kill us. This dying will resurrect us. As a denomination, I have full confidence that we will use this death as an opportunity to rise into new, hopeful, and creative people of God. “The Church is dying, thanks be to God!” As we continue to wander in the wilderness, thank you NEXT Church National Gathering for renewing my hope in this church that I love so deeply.


Megan McMillan is a student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Currently, she is serving as the Chaplain Intern at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch in Hunt, TX, for her SPM until the end of the summer. She will then head back to Austin to finish her final year of seminary. A graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, Megan also served in Columbia, SC as a youth director before her seminary career. She has two adorable dogs that love the outdoors as much as she does, and is an avid South Carolina Gamecock fan.

Journeying Through the Wilderness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Erin Hayes-Cook

“And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild.” Call to worship, Tuesday, at the NEXT Church National Gathering. I’ve kept these words in my spiritual pocket for the past few weeks. They have shaped how I move about in this ministry world in which I find myself.

I came to face dying and rising in my ministry context, vocation, and life. For I feel like I am a leader in the wilderness carving meaning out of rock and claiming the God of transformation while listening to the grief of God’s people. To say it is hard work would diminish the cost of discipleship.

At the National Gathering, I named the dry and desert places with colleagues and heard from David Leong who asked us the question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal and rebirth?” His question stirred in my spirit and imagination. What if the leaders of the church are called to go to the abandoned and neglected places and find resurrection? To me that is a calling.

On the other hand, I heard stories from Sheri Parks and Betsy Nix about the Thread program in Baltimore who walk with young people who need a community to support them. Or the woman who stood up during the presentation and shared about her presbytery holding a racial awareness festival. Blossoms kept springing up.

John Vest presented an imaginative way to move through ministry challenges and find those blossoms with the Cultivated Ministry approach. The shared tools and rubric helped me find another way to claim the God of transformation in ministry. I look forward to using it in the future.

The final challenge for me was Jonathan Walton’s keynote speech, “Be Suspicious of Praise.” He claimed that it is easier to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a prophet. Jesus’ biggest temptation was not found in his interaction with the devil in the desert, but when surrounded by his people who gave him praise. As I try my best to listen to the Spirit in the midst of the wilderness my hope is that I may answer yes to the second question, “Are you one with the age? Or are you being what our age needs right now?”

I’m grateful that my experience at the NEXT Church National Gathering gave me space again to claim with joy the call to journey through the wilderness.


Erin Hayes-Cook is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (’05), she served two churches in the Philadelphia area. She finds community at her Crossfit Box and coffee shops nearby.