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. 

Radical Reconciliation Reimagined

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Glenn McCray

I love to read, but if I’m honest, I rarely read books cover-to-cover. Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism is not one of those books. I’ve read this book 3 times! What I appreciate about this book, among many things, is the amazing job co-authors Allan Aubrey Boesak (2016 NEXT Church National Gathering keynoter) and Curtiss Paul DeYoung do of engaging the topic of reconciliation from a theological, historical, political, social, and racial perspective. While they use South Africa’s struggle against apartheid and the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a practical example, they esteem Jesus as being central not only to the work of the TRC but the real, radical, and revolutionary work of reconciliation as well.

Boesak and DeYoung deconstruct the Jesus painted by dominant culture, referencing liberation theologian Miguel de la Torre: “Those wishing to ground their understanding of reconciliation within the Cristian tradition are forced to deal with the figure of Jesus Christ.” The question they pose is, “Which Jesus?” Boesak suggests, “It cannot be the Jesus as we have seen, the one captured Africans first met when we saw his name carved in the sides of the slave ships that carried Africans from their homelands into slavery. Neither can it be the Christ of the church doctrines who evolved into the blond, blue-eyed Christ of Western culture so alien to the enslaved, oppressed, exploited peoples who were baptized in his name. Nor can it be the Jesus only known as the one who offered unconditional forgiveness to all. For us, as for the Gospel, this Jesus first and foremost has to be the Jesus who stood in the synagogue in Nazareth, according to the Gospel of Luke, and proclaimed himself the Spirit-anointed One of God.” I resonate with this wrestle.

As a person of color, born to an immigrant mother from the Philippines and an African American father from Louisiana, raised in a marginalized community, I was raised to be suspicious of dominant culture. Understandably so. I eventually gave my life to Jesus and, naturally, I had my suspicions about him too. It wasn’t until later in my faith when I realized that my issue wasn’t with Jesus but rather the Jesus that was presented to me and communities of color for centuries. The Jesus that I’ve come to know is not a Jesus of comfort and convenience but rather a Jesus who inconveniently and nonsensically disrupts the status quo theologically, historically, politically, socially, racially, and personally. This Jesus is the Jesus we were always meant to follow.

The work of Boesak and DeYoung, along with so many others, greatly influence the way I understand and live into ministry. As someone who is passionate about reconciliation it is important to me to have an ongoing hunger to learn from those who have and continue to wrestle with what it means to be reconciled people (to God, self, and others); however, reconciled does not mean that we’re simply diverse. As my mentor Tali Hairston (a 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering keynote speaker) reminds me, “If diversity is our objective, we still fall short. Unity is the objective.”

As we continue engage this challenging work, and even as we gather at the National Gathering, it will be an aesthetically beautiful, yet challenging space considering we represent various theological, ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, gender, and political backgrounds and beliefs. It will be an exhilarating (or not) first-time experience for some and an exhausting (or not) “here we go again” experience for others. And while we might pause every now and again to appreciate the diversity of the gathering, be reminded that diversity is not the objective. Unity is. And I would suggest that reconciliation (to God, self, and others) is how we get there. Allan Boesak suggests, “The issue is not reconciliation. The problem is our understanding and interpretation of it…Are we ready to imagine reconciliation?

Glenn McCray is married to Rev. Tasha Hicks McCray, lead Pastor at Mt. View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where he also worships and serves. Vocationally, Glenn serves as the Director of Church-Based Community Development with Urban Impact, a para-church ministry in Seattle. Together, Tasha and Glenn also serve as high school girls basketball coaches at their neighborhood high school, Evergreen.

We Are Still Gathered

by Lori Raible

There was a time when almost 600 educators, elders, and clergy folk filled a church in the middle of Atlanta. We worshipped. We danced. We painted. We preached (man did we preach). From the belly of our souls, we sung. Remember our song?

We asked ourselves some challenging questions.

What is the unintentional impact of our mission work?

If God is so kind, why are we so intent on making enemies?

How do we hear and hold one another’s pain and anger with respect, and courage?

Memories. Wounds. Justice. Healing. Joy. We claimed hope.

_MG_9339 (1)But Allan Boesak asked us point blank: “Do we proclaim the Hope of the Gospel with anger and courage?”

To be specific,

“With courage, with compassion; do we [proclaim the Gospel] with faithfulness to those who suffer? The wrongs we see are not just randomly happening, they are made to happen, and they are happening to the vast majority of God’s children who are walking this earth. They are not happening randomly, they are deeply systemic, deliberately built into systems of oppression, domination, and dehumanization. And we must not be afraid to say it…

We speak a language couched in such caution, such ambiguity, such fear, that it becomes almost meaningless. The truth is carefully camouflaged in our diplomacy… Because the perpetrators of these wrongs are powerful and rich and privileged we are tempted to speak in a language guaranteed not to give offence…”

We stood on our feet and applauded. Then he cut to the chase.

“As…Dietrich Bonheoffer, has taught us: ‘The time for pious words is over… when the deck is loaded, when cowardice heaps praises upon that which was before recognized as despicable, then it is the task of the church to realize that the signs of the church have always been the dove, the lamb, the lion and the fish, but never the chameleon.’”

We want things to change. Don’t we?

Hands in the air, like palms waving all around, we stood on our feet and shouted, ‘Hosanna!’ We threw it down like purple robes on yesterday’s dirt road.  Beating feet and drums.

Yes, we did that. It felt good to be together. Even though we knew the cross was coming, we shouted anyway. We gathered at the table. We prayed. We listened. We were challenged. We tried to understand. Lent is like that.

alison-harrington-audienceNEXT Church is founded on the conviction that God is active in the world, and together we are invited into that activity. For this reason, the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta was organized with our deepening relationships in mind. Seminarians gathered to consider the church they will inherit sooner than later. Nine Scottish pastors joined our conference to share stories of tenacity and creativity through a changing culture and church. Almost 50 workshops engaged us in honest conversations that impact our communities. The Church is God’s people in relationship with a purpose, a vocation, a particular call; a call to move from applause and inspiration to courage and risk.

We can’t simply talk about change; we must do what we say we believe.

Last year, NEXT Church leaned in to this truth. We walked beside leaders in a variety of contexts for the purpose of change. NEXT Church seeks to equip and connect the newly ordained to community, resources, and mentors. Last week, 80 pastors and educators gathered with 15 coaches and mentors for the Trent@Montreat conference for the newly ordained. Along with Montreat Conference Center, Macedonian Ministries, Union Presbyterian Seminary, and Second Presbyterian Roanoke, VA, NEXT Church sponsored a week of practical equipping and connecting with peers and coaches.

For the purpose of connecting and equipping our leaders with the tools they need to thrive, The PC(USA) Board of Pensions and NEXT Church has created an online resource center for those in their early years of ministry,

Several regional conferences were hosted with the intent of creating highly relational experiences, particular to the needs of the communities who organized and participated in them.

Looking ahead, NEXT Church held a vast and swift listening campaign with the intent of hearing and unifying our voices for change within our denomination. We heard from nearly 500 Presbyterians across the country in 50 gatherings. Our question: What is the Church’s mission in the world?

It is Easter… we are active in the world aren’t we?

White sheets still dance in the wind holding onto the neck of our firmly planted, wooden crosses as traffic races by. Budgets, members, hospitals, sermons, pre-schools, committees, elections, violence, borders, jails, schools, them and us. Life is so busy, reconciliation is so costly, and here we are right back where we started. Which way do we go?

Remember Easter?  Hosanna turned Alleluia, an empty cross, and Christ loose in the world.

Our vision. Our goal. Our standard. Our hope: NEXT Church will reflect the beauty and creativity of God’s Kingdom in a way that celebrates the best parts of our diverse Church. Courage. Anger. Risk. Reconciliation. Are we really in relationship?

Currently racial diversity amidst our strategy and advisory teams is 20%. A goal of 50%  leadership by people of color by 2017 hinges on our ability to build organic relationships of depth and purpose. Is claiming a measurable goal some sort of manufactured solution? No. Does it express a commitment to examine and change unintentional patterns of privilege and discrimination? Yes. The leadership team will intentionally seek relationships with colleagues in ministry who are different than they assume themselves to be, and we invite you to join us in this endeavor.

As Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, a board member of the More Light Presbyterians Group, and Rev. Don Meeks, an active participant of The Fellowship Community, shared in Atlanta, knowing and loving one another in the name of Christ can transcends any barrier we humans have created.

We are a network of thousands of hopeful and faithful PCUSA leaders, and as long as our denomination is in transition, there is work for NEXT Church to do.

How can we nourish our roots in the best parts of our history and reformed faith, while the withering branches of power and hierarchy are pruned for change?

How do you motivate change within your community? We can’t stand by our crosses idly and watch the traffic. It can’t be them and us.

What could our churches be doing if we weren’t so busy hanging on?

What needs to change? What is possible if it does?

In exchange for sparing you the Gandhi quote that just popped into your head, consider this: last year, we raised $118,000. This small budget supports our dedicated and gifted director, Rev. Jessica Tate, and Linda Kurtz, NEXT Church’s part-time communication specialist as she continues to improve the way we connect with one another through our updated website. We also supported a Young Adult Volunteer, and a few initiatives such Trent@Montreat. That money came from only 30 congregations and 50 individuals.

Pennies, dollars, and very large checks… we need you to invest. We need you to explain NEXT Church to your sessions and colleagues. Simply ask them to support NEXT Church as we seek to build the body of Christ through connecting and equipping leaders across our denomination.

We are still gathered. You won’t find us paralyzed by the empty cross or huddled in dark and isolated rooms. Let’s remember we are Christ’s body at work in the world together.

Perhaps we too are zipping right past the cross. I suspect God is okay with that as long as we have an idea of where we are going. Jesus isn’t on the cross, and Pentecost is around the corner anyway.

I lean on you, each of you, as if my vocation depends on it.  There are times when I am leaning on your hope, leaning your faith, leaning on your voice… to sing the song, from the depths of your soul, when mine feels empty, and the words won’t come. I am leaning….

Remember our song. I’m humming it now, and there is plenty of room in the car….  

In addition to supporting NEXT Church with a donation made online, you can also send your gift via check to Village Presbyterian Church, earmarked NEXT Church:

Village Presbyterian Church
6641 Mission Road
Prairie Village, KS 66208

Lori RaibleLori Raible is a pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a co-chair of the NEXT Church strategy team.

The Issue of Our Time

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jeff Bryan

I went to the NEXT Church National Gathering for two reasons: to see old friends, and rob them blind. By see, I mean reconnect, break bread, and revive my soul with the people I hold dear. By rob them, I mean steal their church ideas. I picked pockets all over the National Gathering, particularly the “Faith Formation in Your Family Room” workshop. I swiped every idea Amy Morgan put on the table, praise God. My ministry is better for it.

tsr_5620_webI did not go to NEXT expecting a third thing, my biggest takeaway: white supremacy. For the longest time, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around America. I’ve been reading articles, watching documentaries, listening to candidates and congregants and cousins, clenching my teeth. I’ve been trying to understand my own place in the world as a white, southern, male, Presbyterian, pastor of a “suit and tie” church in the deep south. Let’s add some more words to that list: progressive, husband, and father. I came to the NEXT National Gathering with a muddled mind in need of organization. In volleyball terms, Jesus gave me a bump—set—spike.

Allan Boseak’s presentation hit me hard. I was struck by his courage, experience, and insistence on justice and restitution. He left me dreaming, “What does restitution look like back in South Carolina?” Bump.

The testimony of Jessica Vazquez Torres completely blew me away. She framed the conversation so thoroughly, and articulated the concept of white supremacy so clearly, I felt relief. It relieved me to hear Ms. Torres pin down the evil behemoth so precisely. Bump, set.

My last workshop was “Engaging the Problem of White Fragility” with J.C. Austin. He further explained white supremacy, listed the ways white people misunderstand racism, led us in a storytelling exercise, and suggested further reading. I followed up with Mr. Austin via email, and he shared an amazing Robin DiAngelo article with me.  Spike.

I am convinced that white supremacy, in all its devilish variations, is the issue of our time. More so, Christ is screaming, calling us into the struggle against it.

When it comes to NEXT, I got what I came for: friendships and fresh ministry ideas. But God gave me all the more: a clearer understanding of myself, my context, and my calling as a pastor. Thank you, NEXT.

Jeff Bryan PhotoJeff Bryan is the Senior Pastor / Head of Staff at Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church, Rock Hill, SC. Originally from northwest Georgia, he holds degrees from Berry College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia. Jeff enjoys family time, basketball, and discovering new music.

2016 National Gathering Allan Boesak Keynote

Allan Boesak presented our Monday evening keynote at the 2016 National Gathering. You can find a PDF transcript of his keynote here in addition to the recording.

Allan Aubrey Boesak was born in Kakamas, Northern Cape, South Africa in 1946, studied at the University of the Western Cape and received his PhD in Theology from the Protestant Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands in 1976. 1976 also marks the Soweto Uprisings and Allan Boesak’s entry into public life in South Africa. Dr Boesak served the church and the ecumenical movement in various senior capacities since 1978, including as President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the first person from the global South and youngest ever to be elected into that position. Under his leadership this world body adopted the “apartheid is a heresy” declaration and suspended the two Dutch Reformed Churches from membership for their theological and moral support for and justification of the apartheid system. In 1983 Allan Boesak called for the formation of the United Democratic Front, which became the largest organised, non-racial, nonviolent anti-apartheid movement in the history of the country. Allan Boesak became its most visible leader and spokesperson until its closure by the ANC in 1991. Dr. Boesak is a preacher and teacher, and remains deeply and passionately involved in global struggles for human rights, social, economic and ecological justice, gender and sexual justice across the world. His most recent publication, Kairos, Crisis, and Global Apartheid, the Challenge for Prophetic Resistance, was published by Palgrave McMillan, 2015. Dr. Boesak is the first holder of the Desmond Tutu Chair for Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies, and founding director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Reconciliation and Global Justice at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University in Indianapolis.

Courage to Plant the Seeds of Change

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ann Henderson

Challenge is the word that I hold on to as I contemplate my response to the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering. Spending two and a half days immersed in meaningful worship, rich keynotes, and empowering real life examples of the church at work in our broken but beautiful world was…well… honestly, it was exhausting! But exhausting in a good way – the kind of exhausting that gives me more energy in the end; exhausting as in finishing a thought provoking book; or exhausting as in diving deep into an issue that I am completely passionate about; or exhausting as in knocking on doors for a political candidate; or exhausting as in serving meals at a local soup kitchen.  Exhausted but renewed, a paradox of sorts.

alison-harrington-audienceThe words of Pope Francis, quoted by keynote speaker Allan Boesak, circle around in my head and heart: Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected? Do we realize that something is wrong where so many senseless wars are being fought? Do we realize something is wrong when the soil, water, air and living creatures of our world are under constant threat? So let’s not be afraid to say it: we need change; we want change.

On the one hand, I grieve the seeming lack of empathy in our world and in our churches. Yet on the other hand, the fact that these words are spoken by one of, if not the, most powerful religious leader on this earth gives me hope. As do many other things I saw and heard at NEXT… The Sanctuary church in Arizona where immigrants are welcomed and cared for gives me hope. Members from Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) warned us that “you can’t build what you can’t imagine,” challenging us to imagine a just economy, a community where racial divides are acknowledged and one that admits that black lives really do matter; a healthy earth, where clean air and water is valued; a world at peace…. They have imagined and listened and are seeing some positive change in the midst of despair in their community. This gives me hope. Members of some Atlanta area churches are graciously opening their buildings to their neighbors for after school education programs and to immigrant congregations for worship space. This gives me hope.

We might not enjoy the shade of the oak tree that we plant, we might not enter the promised land, change is a process, a struggle. In The Irony of American History, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” The NEXT Church National Gathering gave me hope and courage that we can  stand with our neighbors and plant the seeds of change.

Ann HendersonAnn Henderson is a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church, Statesboro, Georgia.