Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

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

by Kerri N. Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

National Words for Local Work

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

by Cecelia Armstrong

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

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

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

Here is what I mean:

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

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


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

A Butterfly Beginning

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

by Antonio Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I Can’t Breathe

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

by Kelle Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Plenty Good Room at the Table

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

by Jerrod Lowry

A critique of General Assembly Resolution 05-09 said:

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies.”

The critique of the resolution is correct – no General Assembly action will reverse the decline of black Presbyterian congregations and lead to numerical membership growth. If the desire of the resolution is for the General Assembly to assess and address what keeps potential members from joining or even visiting black Presbyterian congregations, then this statement is correct: “resolutions occurring at the national level do not have tangible impact at the local level…[the resolution] does virtually nothing to stem the tide [of diminution].”

Commissioners from the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina at General Assembly (photo from Presbytery of Coastal Carolina Facebook page)

However I am also assuming that the concern of the critic is the numerical diminution – reduction or dwindling – of congregational membership and not the equally plausible lessening or weakening of an important voice at Presbyterian tables. Could the critic of the resolution also be talking about the minimizing of influence and power of black congregations in the life of their mid-councils?

The resolution acknowledges that such decline is taking place as an intentional result or apathetic neglect as black committee members are discouraged from sharing their perspectives, committees on representation in particular presbyteries are not doing the work to ensure voices from black presbyterian congregations are represented around Presbyterian tables of influence, there is not flexibility in an ordination process seems too rigorous for seminary graduates that opt to drop out of the ordination process, capable young adults in black congregations are not being mentored to be vocal members at tables of leadership, or black Presbyterian congregations are allowed to extend calls to non-Presbyterian pastors who may not value our connectional system nor feel compelled to participate in the life of the church beyond congregations of call. Each of these charges in the resolution could very well be part of what the critic calls the “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” – a systemic lessening of influence in addition to numbers.

Even if the concern of the critic of the resolution is not about the membership size of black churches but a failing power and prophetic witness from black Presbyterians at Presbyterian tables, it still holds true that no resolution from General Assembly will immediately reverse nor empower black congregations to alter bad actions that have caused the black Presbyterian presence and voice around Presbyterian tables to be minimized. Neither this resolution nor the criticism of the resolution will transfigure a system that allows black congregation shrinking numbers. Neither this resolution nor the criticism of the resolution will change that black Presbyterians feel their voices remain unheard and under valued at Presbyterian tables.

Last but not least I think the critic missed an important opportunity to applaud and further advance a concern raised in the resolution that challenges those who claim to value “voices long silenced.” The critic should have noticed that a resolution concerned with a marginalized community does not adequately address those on the margins of this same marginalized community. It should be applauded that this resolution asks that research be done to address the reality that African American Presbyterian congregations are slow, at best, to extend calls to female clergy. Such a study would document a well-known problem. However, I’m disappointed that neither the resolution nor the critic of the resolution share similar concerns for our out and proud queer clergy colleagues without pastoral calls. I have no doubt that a study of those who are extended calls to serve black Presbyterian congregations will also reveal that LGBTQ colleagues are under represented at rates that reveal some are black-balled from the call process to serve black Presbyterian congregations.

At a recent General Assembly, Rev. Jim Reese shared that black Presbyterians “stayed” at tables designed to restrict their presence and reduce the influence of their voice. It appears that both critic and authors of the resolution agree that not much has changed. I also agree with both critic and resolution authors that there is a great deal of work to be done with and within black congregations that will help us embody today the proud legacy that we inherited from our foreparents.


Jerrod B. Lowry is the General Presbyter/Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina. He previously served as Head of Staff for Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy, Utah, pastor of St. Paul Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, NC, and the Associate for Specialized Ministries for the Presbytery of New Hope. Jerrod is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.

The Church that is Becoming

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

by Floretta Barbee-Watkins

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies” – Paul Roberts

The sentiments of Rev. Paul Roberts echo the frustration of many in the church, but most specifically, Black Presbyterians. The disappointment of a top-down decision can be seen as it relates to the recommendation to mid-councils of the PCUSA to recommit to having an active “committee on representation” as well as raise awareness of the declining nature of black congregations in the PCUSA. However, the problems and challenges of the state of Blacks in the PCUSA cannot be viewed or resolved with technical changes.

Photo from The Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Our denomination is still predominately White; therefore, at best we can make sure that Black people are represented on all committees. However that will not resolve the racist, sexist, or even patriarchy that is foundational to the way we have done and still do things. Further, “raising awareness” about the decline of Black congregations does nothing to address the systemic causes related to the reduction of Black congregations.

For this reason, I can only partially agree with Rev. Roberts assertion that resolutions do not trickle down to mid-councils or congregations. Moreover, no General Assembly resolution can begin to address the complexities of implicit bias, patriarchy, sexism, or racism. Additionally, resolving that mid-councils raise awareness offers no practical or intentional action that can be measured qualified or quantified for change.

What we also must recognize is that the General Assembly is made up of teaching and ruling elders who are from our presbyteries. Therefore, the notion of hierarchical decisions trickling down is not an accurate description. Each voting member comes from the files and ranks of local congregations.
The challenges to overcome are complex:

  1. Class issues. Only those who can afford to take off work to attend meetings can participate (or those who own their own business).
  2. Age issues. Those who are retired, are typically selected to participate in a meeting or conference that will require several business days of work.
  3. Polity issues. The assembly can affirm a vote; however, it must be ratified by the presbytery before it becomes effective.

Other issues can be highlighted and found to offer no resolve as it relates to the way we currently do the work of the Church. Is there a better way? Are there other ways to create a dynamic, energetic, creative, and relevant denomination that still honors our reformed tradition?

Here’s the deal! The answer is yes, but these issues are far more complex than offering a quick fix. Warren Bennis once said, “The critical quality of a leader that determines how that leader will fare in a crucible experience is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to constant change. It is the ability to identify and seize opportunities. It will enable leaders to act and then evaluate results instead of attempting to collect and analyze all the data before acting.”

The General Assembly is not designed to do this, but presbyteries and local congregations are. If a “change is gonna come,” both presbyteries and congregations will have to examine practices, acclimate quickly, and be trained in thinking adaptively rather than offering a quick fix to complex issues. We will need adaptive change over technical change to create what’s next. There is hope for us because the Holy Spirit is actively at work. This is what we believe.


Flo Barbee Watkins is a justice seeker, teaching elder, agitator, disruptor of norms, lover of Jesus, lover of people, lover of change. Flo is an Atlanta-born Charlotte resident, military veteran, doctoral candidate, lover of bourbon, cuban cigars, and sartorial professorial attire.

Black and Presbyterian

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

by Paul Roberts

Here’s why I am not a fan of resolution 05-09 from the 223rd General Assembly.

It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies: Freedom Rising Initiative of 2016, black church growth strategies of 2012 and earlier, and the New Wineskins papers of the mid 1990’s.

Photo from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary Facebook page.

My 30 years as a Presbyterian has in many ways been defined by voices who have consistently named this problem. Yet, denominationally, the problem has only gotten worse. If we’ve known this for 30-plus years, and conventional processes haven’t addressed the problem in all this time, how much longer are we gonna content ourselves with doing the same thing over and over again! This is mind-boggling to me and personally I have no time or energy to devote to this insanity any more.

Also, this resolution assumes that the future of black Presbyterianism is inextricably tied to the preservation of its roughly 400 congregations. I don’t accept that. For sure, these congregations have an important legacy and rich tradition, but history suggests that the relationship between African-Americans and the Presbyterian Church is much bigger than our 400 extant churches, much more complex, and much richer. I believe the same is true of our future.

I believe the way forward is to organize new African-American congregations, new intercultural congregations, and new multi-ethnic congregations and let the witness of black presbyterianism move forward from those new places. Enough with the resolutions. Enough with the investigating and reporting back 12-24 months later. Just enough.

And here’s a challenge!

For the last eight years, NEXT Church has been asking itself–
What is the Holy Spirit doing in the world?
What is next for the church?
What can NEXT Church do to help create what’s next for the church?

Maybe the next frontier for NEXT Church is to use the learnings of the last eight years as a foundation for planting some new churches. Black ones. Brown ones. White ones. Red ones. Blue ones. Mixed up ones.


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary.

Ties That Can’t Be Severed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Greg Bolt

“And thus it is with those nurtured in Appalachia — they leave, but they look back, remembering pleasant things. The land has claimed them, and its ties will not be severed.”

— Maurice Brooks from “The Appalachians”

I heard this quote as I sat in the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, WV for my little sister’s graduation from West Virginia University. The same venue where, a few years earlier, I had attended my own graduation from graduate school. It spoke to me then; it speaks to me now. In that time, I had already moved away from West Virginia, moved back, and was in seminary where I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be coming back.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s odd to me that Appalachia, and West Virginia specifically, has such a tug on my life. My parents moved there when I was in college, but when people ask me where I’m from I say — without hesitation — West Virginia. (I even sing the WVU fight song to my kids every night at bedtime.) I love that place so much that I get emotional just thinking about it. Part of that, I think, is the realization that I will most likely never live their again.

My wife and I are both teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church, we are both bi-vocational, we have two young kids, and it doesn’t feel like we can make a life in West Virginia. Nor would we seek a life somewhere else in Appalachia. Finding a church or churches that could support us and/or another job to support the work of the church seems too burdensome at this point. There are a lot of reasons that West Virginia doesn’t feel like a possibility (not the least of which is we don’t feel called there): economic, cultural, political, professional. I think any one of those reasons could be overcome but, when they are all working against you, it’s difficult. Sometimes the beautiful, close knit, tight hollows can feel like a warm hug welcoming you home to the place that you belong (to borrow a phrase from John Denver) but eventually they get to feel like a vise that constricts forward movement, that chokes off innovation, that stifles creativity.

The major problem with that is I know it isn’t true. Some of the most fantastic, innovative, creative people I know are from West Virginia. I also know a lot of people who have left for the same reasons. My family lives in West Virginia and has made a home there. I would love to live closer to my parents so that they could be in the same physical space as their grandkids more often. I’d love to walk through the woods at Bluestone Camp and Retreat, where my first professional ministry began. I’d love to call it my home again. Though that doesn’t seem likely now, I know that I have been claimed by the land and its people and those ties will never be broken.


Greg Bolt is the co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Red Wing in Red Wing, Minnesota. Greg is originally from the Southeast and attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Greg immediately enrolled in West Virginia University to study Athletic Coaching Education, where he received his Master of Science in Physical Education. After some trial and error, he entered seminary at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA where he met his wife Heidi and completed his Master of Divinity.

Ministry in Appalachia

by Anna Pinckney Straight

Let me say at the outset, I didn’t grow up here, in West Virginia or in Appalachia.

My birthplace is the deep south of Charleston, South Carolina. I understand that place (understanding being a very different thing than admiring or agreeing) and know it’s not the place that is “home” any longer. It is no longer of me, or I of it.

Anna Pinckney Crotts, Arthurdale, WV, 1997

For the second time in ministry, I’ve heard the call to serve a congregation in West Virgina. The first time it was an accident – I was called to a church that happened to be in West Virginia. I moved there single. Newly ordained. Ready to light the world on fire. This time, my husband and I prayed that West Virginia might reveal a church to which I would be called. We moved here by choice, with intention, and hope to stay a while.

Which means that, while I might not ever be considered “from here,” I want to understand this place’s ways. To know its history and people – the motivations and struggles that illustrate it.

But it isn’t easy learning a new language when you are in your forties. And the world isn’t the same place in 2018 that it was in 1997.

You might know something about West Virginia already, even if it’s just a general idea about the statistics.

U.S. median household income (2016): $59,039. West Virginia: $42,644

National poverty rate: 12.7%. West Virginia: 17.9%

The highest obesity rate in the nation at 37.7 %, and the highest approval ratings for President Trump.

If Jesus does have a preferential option for the poor, for the struggling, for the voiceless, then this is where Jesus must surely be. Right?

But… those aren’t the reasons I moved here. I moved here because it is a place with amazing people and unparalleled beauty.

The people here will share their precious morel mushrooms with you (even if they won’t tell you where they find them).

It’s a place where a busy commute means ten minutes to get across town but taking your daughter’s school friends home might take two hours or more.

It’s a place where even a small town of four thousand can have a Carnegie Hall and multiple music venues operating most nights of the week.

During the recent teacher’s strike, the community gathered food for children who might be hungry due to not having school-provided breakfast and lunch. But how could they find out about it? How could they get to it? You can go hours without cell phone coverage in some parts of the state, and even if parents know about the food, if they had the money to get there, they’d have the money to buy groceries. (For another perspective on this event, read Debra Dean Murphy in the Christian Century: “In West Virginia, the teachers’ strike made new space for Eucharistic living“).

To sum up, it’s complicated.

This month, we’ll be delving a little deeper into what ministry is like in this region of Appalachia (most of our writers are from West Virginia, but not all of them). What makes this a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry here?

I hope you’ll accept the invitation to take the journey with us.

In closing, here are some words written by author and professor Silas House for the soon-to-be-released documentary entitled “Hillbilly” —

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

[The text from the teaser for http://hillbillymovie.com/, written and read by Silas House, Executive Producer.]


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.

The Power of the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Kate Foster Connors

The timing of Easter – the great celebration of God’s power over death – just before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – whose organizing acumen and brilliant preaching challenged (indeed, threatened) the white majority’s tight grasp on power – has gotten me thinking.

Power is not often talked about in the church, apart from the sovereign power of God. In fact, in 17 years of ministry, I have never encountered a congregation with an adult education class on the topic. Which is curious, because most churches I know are struggling mightily to reinvent themselves in a time when the Church has less and less power in society. You would think that our lack of power would create an urgency in the Church to understand and use it.

The story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15 is a reminder to us, and perhaps to the North American Church, that even one who is not granted societal power can find power and use it to create change:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

A gentile, the Canaanite woman is outside the House of Israel, to whom Jesus’ mission was targeted. She is clear in her self-interest: she wants to find healing for her daughter, and she will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. Here is how her action unfolds:

  • She begins her action with a plea for help, which Jesus ignores.
  • The disciples urge Jesus to send her away – she is being irritating, shouting after them (the word for shouting implies moaning or loud crying out, such as a woman might do during labor).
  • Jesus dismisses her verbally by reminding her that he was not sent to minister to her people (the Canaanites, historical enemies of Israel).
  • She revises her strategy on the spot, placing her body at his feet, addressing Jesus as “Lord,” (appealing to his self-interest to be known as and believed in as the Messiah) and again asking for his help.
  • Jesus responds with an offensive admonition that his healing power is not meant for her or her people: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
  • The Canaanite woman again revises her strategy in a wise use of power that engages Jesus’ self-interest and redirects the conversation entirely – using Jesus’ offensive comment, she retorts that “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Understanding that Jesus’ self-interest is in teaching and sharing God’s message widely, and in being known as the Messiah, she again addresses him as “Lord” and refers to him as “master.” She thus demonstrates her faith in Jesus as Lord, despite her “outsider” status. (She also might know that his preaching and teaching focused largely on challenging the Powers, making space for those at the margins – but we do not know what she knows of his teachings).
  • In the face of power, the Canaanite woman does not back down or shrink away, but rather engages the conversation, prepared to appeal to the Jesus’ self-interest until she gets what she wants.
  • Jesus changes his response to the woman, and (as we know from the story) the Canaanite woman’s daughter is healed.

In this action, the Canaanite woman used a strategy of agitating Jesus by appealing to his self-interest. She interrupted the apparent prejudice against Canaanites that led Jesus to dismiss her, and instead forced him to listen to her. By doing so, she changed Jesus’ mind, and got what she wanted: healing for her daughter.

Often, we read this story from Jesus’ perspective: we should be open to people who are different from us, who we might at first dismiss.

But what would happen if we read it from the Canaanite woman’s perspective? Maybe, in this time when our society often dismisses the Church, we can learn something from her persistence, courage, and use of power.


Kate Foster Connors is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Theological Seminary. She has served churches in Memphis, TN, and Baltimore, MD. Currently, Kate is the Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore that hosts church groups for mission experiences in Baltimore. She and her husband, Andrew, have 2 teenage daughters, a cat, and a dog.