Stretching and Straining between Celebration and Agony

By Jodi Craiglow

Diana Butler Bass was just starting to hit pay dirt when Marci’s phone buzzed. She glanced down and swiped the screen, and I saw (and felt) a surge of energy course through her. A mixture of exhilaration and relief washed across her face as she leaned over to me and whispered, “Palisades just approved 14-F by a voice vote.”

Those eight words kicked off one of the most ambivalent nights of my life.

You see, Marci’s one of the co-moderators for the Covenant Network. I used to be on the board of directors for the Presbyterian Lay Committee. In a normal world, we should have at the very least kept one another at arm’s length. Who am I kidding? In a normal world, I would never have even been at the NEXTChurch gathering. But nevertheless, there we were, sitting beside each other – by choice – and, to make matters even more absurd, I was the first one she told when she saw the news.

A few silent-but-electrified minutes passed, and the young woman we’ve lovingly come to know as the “Presbyterian Kanye” heralded the news to the non-Twitterfied public. A spontaneous standing ovation erupted. As if my ambivalence weren’t quite thick enough yet… there I was, sitting on the front pew of Fourth Church’s expansive sanctuary, in direct eyeshot of over six hundred people. The room tilted ever so slightly on its axis as I found my way to my feet. I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands, so I gave Marci a benevolent pat on the arm. As the celebrations died down, we all settled back into our seats and tried as best we could to pay attention to this scholar whose talk was supposed to be the highlight of the conference.

After the presentation, I took CovNet’s, More Light’s, and Parity’s “All Are Welcome” invitation at its word and found my way over to Ditka’s for what ended up being the 14-F ratification party. Brian, CovNet’s Executive Director, gave me a hug and thanked me for coming. Tricia, CovNet’s national organizer, made her way across the crowded room to ask how I was holding up. I texted Nathan, one of More Light’s co-moderators, with words of benediction and received his blessing in response. I checked Facebook, and my News Feed was a schizophrenic mixture of celebration and agony.

My mind was drawn back to Diana’s diagram of the “Arc of Awakening.” I’ve known for a while that God is calling me to a place of holding hands with people on both sides of that semicircle – but what I didn’t realize is how much (or often) it would force me to stretch and strain. I gathered in the middle of the room to pray with the remaining partygoers, and a few tears escaped my closed eyelids. Landon found me, gave me a hug, and the last shreds of my composure dissolved. I wept, right there in the middle of the room, in front of God and everybody. I cried for the confusion I felt – for wanting to mourn with some of the people I loved and rejoice with some of the other people I loved. I cried for the insecurity that comes when you realize that labels aren’t really working anymore. I cried for the long and heartbreakingly rocky road that inevitably lies ahead. And Landon stood there with me and allowed me do it, knowing full well that I hold a different view than he does on some pretty hot-button issues right now – but also knowing that our kinship as siblings in Christ runs deeper than any disagreement we could ever have.

So, what does the NEXT church look like for me? It looks like a place where we love each other enough to disagree well. It looks like a place where we trust Jesus enough to let him put us in situations where we’d never think we’d find ourselves. And it looks like a place where it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity – especially when that unity doesn’t mean uniformity.

Jodi Craiglow Jodi Craiglow is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, IL. She is a PhD student in Educational Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and serves as an adjunct professor at Trinity International University and Trinity Graduate School.


Bridging the Thin Places

By Leslie King

It was an amazing 2015 conference at NEXT Church. As always, front line ministries were “the experts” kindling our imaginations and hope for the church. All gathered were honoring the past while answering God’s persuasive call into the future with curiosity and discovery. What other conference allows you to come home and “brain dump” seven pages of pragmatic notes for your own ministry? It was wonderful.

On Tuesday evening of the conference, we panned up from all the particular ministries we had been considering to sit at the feet of Diana Butler Bass. Her current work is around the awakening that she believes is happening in the church. In order to explore the process of awakening, in her work, she appropriates Otto Scharmer’s Theory U project for the church. So Theory U has a wonderful simplicity. The shape of the letter U allows one to understand the personal or corporate shift from a crisis in understanding (an experience at the top left of the U shape) as a movement through the lower and deeper places of personal or corporate awareness (cradle of the U shape) toward a new understanding and transformation (upward toward top right of the U shape). In her presentation, Bass described the bottom of the U as the “thinnest” place where access to a new vision is most available to us. However, this promising thin place is also the most fragile place. Diana Butler Bass encouraged participants in NEXT to understand themselves as a bridge for the Body of Christ, crossing over the thin places toward new visions that were not just personal but corporate.

At some point in her speech, perhaps before she described her appropriation, there was from the balcony a voice that called out and interrupted Diana. With apology but abundant joy, a young woman announced to the room that Amendment 14-F had received enough Presbytery votes to officially pass. The amendment, proposing a redefinition of marriage, would become part of our Book of Order. Her call from on high pulled an unstoppable groundswell from below. Cheering people were on their feet with a spontaneous joy. I was not surprised by the passing of the amendment, but I was surprised by the reaction in the room.

NEXT Church has, over its five year existence, carefully attended to its identity. Its self-description is careful and complex. While so many other groups were organizing around issues, NEXT church organized around relationship and ministry. In its own words, NEXT is “…a movement seeking to change the culture of connection in the PCUSA.” And yet, it was clear on Tuesday evening that we had a shared and strong majority opinion on amendment 14-F. We had a joy and a response that, even in its sacredness to us, might strain the relational, diverse, collaborative, and agile future for which we are striving. We know that in a room of 600 people, some were on their feet but not buoyed in spirit.

It was a serendipitous example of a thin place. It was not controllable. I would not have wanted to stifle it. Yet, as I was standing, I was thinking of the all the Presbyteries who were still going to sit down and engage the privilege of considering, debating and voting on the amendment. Would they be compelled in their work to determine what was NEXT for our church? Or had the arrival of the simple majority suggested that their privilege had come too late and that the work was complete? Rev. Brian Ellison had just reminded us in his sermon that morning, even after the passing of an amendment, the work of the church was far from complete.

The moment, as I look back on it, is ripe for NEXT church and its consideration of culture, theology and practice of ministry. I have imagined how I might have liked the moment to happen. No matter the scenario I construct, I am convinced that none of them would have honored the transparency and authenticity of NEXT Church. I have decided the moment was a gift, a challenging and ripe gift, ready to inform and nourish the work of NEXT church on the other side of 14-F. With God’s help may we bridge the thin places, and cross over into the ascension of all that is NEXT for Christ’s church and all the people—in all our diversities—that will comprise it.

leslie kingLeslie King is a Teaching Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Waco, TX and is a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.