Finding Inspiration

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dwight Christenbury

I long ago got bored with the idea of trying to get anything practical out of attending a conference. Life’s too short, and anyhow it becomes a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees sort of thing. You spend all your time stalking the perfect tree so you can chop it down and drag it home and make good practical use of it, but in the course of the chopping and dragging what you mainly end up doing is making a lot of unnatural noise, trampling the undergrowth, scaring away the animals, and choking the fish with soil runoff.

So these days I go to conferences looking mainly for inspiration, which is a lot more fun and has turned out to be thoroughly worthwhile. In the case of NEXT Church National Gatherings, I’ve found inspiration not only in the usual places — worship services and plenaries and workshops — but in the conversations and in the solitary wanderings through a strange city and even in that most-Presbyterian of places: the hotel bar. In all of these regards, the recent National Gathering in Kansas City lived up to the standard set by its predecessors.

So where did I find inspiration? In the verbal and visual interpretation of John 4 by women from National Capital Presbytery, who brought the Samaritan woman to life in both bold and subtle new ways, and in Alonzo Johnson’s fierce truth telling and his reminder that we’re called not to hold Living Water in our canteens but to be that water, seeping relentlessly into dry and parched places.

In Nancy Arbuthnot and Gerry Hendershot’s “Verse and Vision” workshop, which, along with the nice people seated at my table, managed to turn a godawful grey meeting room in the bowels of the Marriott into my childhood back yard on a summer evening, just at the tail-end of dusk, as we reflected on Jesus’s words in Luke 8:17.

In a strange, wordy (but in a good way) late-afternoon worship service in which we were all jolted out of our drowsiness by the Neema Community Church Choir and a dawning, in-your-face realization that we’re full of shit if we go around thinking that us has nothing in common with them.

In Soong-Chan Rah’s tasty culinary creation — the Great American Gumbo (or was it jambalaya?) — and in Rodger Nishioka’s infuriating ability to put creative words and pictures to ideas that I might have had once but then forgotten (and all the while making us church people realize how thoroughly wasted are our Sunday school hours).

In the lovely sanctuary of Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral (in whose rafters the strains of “I Love to Tell the Story” had probably never previously echoed), where Jenny McDevitt brilliantly used Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” as an Invitation to the Table, and where, if Te Deum had kept singing, I would still be sitting.

And of course in the restaurants (man, those Kansas City-ans do love their beef) and bars (a really good Old Fashioned at the Cleaver & Cork, which was made even more tasty by the fact that Fourth Presbyterian Church picked up the tab) and hotel lobbies and hallways where the inspiration was in conversation with old friends and new friends. And by conversation I don’t mean small talk but real, challenging, insightful, deep talk — the kind of talk that makes you realize what you’ve been missing (even if you’re an introvert who actually has met a stranger).

So no, I have no intention of going back to the days when I attended conferences seeking practical tips, tools, and strategies that I could drag home and put to work (even if, as it turns out, I end up with a handful of them anyway). Inspiration is much more, well, inspiring — and I’m grateful to those who work hard and long to put NEXT Church National Gatherings together, because their efforts have consistently paid off.

But lest anyone think that I’m either insufficiently critical or on the NEXT Church payroll, let me be fair and balanced in my reflections on the 2017 National Gathering: my hotel room had a really lousy view.

Dwight Christenbury graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005 with dual M.Div./MACE degrees. He now serves as Associate Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he’s been for a really long time. He lives in nearby Black Mountain with his wife, Carol Steele, and their children, Olin and Dean, and he may or may not be working on a book.

Change is Constant, Growth is Optional

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Merrill Neel

One of my colleagues on the church staff loves to remind all of us that “change is constant, growth is optional.” My experience at this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering confirmed the first part of that statement, and has challenged me with regards to the second.

This was my third National Gathering. I find these events a helpful and invigorating use of my time and a great way to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. This year was no different, but as I left Kansas City I realized that I left feeling old and very white – but in a growth-producing way.

It was clear to me that the leadership of NEXT Church is getting younger, and that is good. While my friend Lee Hinson-Hasty has looked at the numbers and has warned us that there will be a pastor shortage down the line, the pastors and leaders who are young now are faithful, and creative, and talented. That is great news for the PCUSA and for the world. But as a 50-something pastor, I felt a little put out to pasture. Why weren’t we singing more hymns? Don’t my 20+ years of experience count for something? Does anyone else here remember when we used to mimeograph the Sunday bulletin?

Change is constant and often hard. My growth into old age is constant. I am challenged to consider how I might give up positions and opportunities that come my way so that someone younger might have the chance to do something. I am also challenged to think about how I might mentor a younger pastor or leader, and how I will continue to learn from a younger pastor or leader.

Harder, and more serious, is my coming to terms with my own racism and the ways the NEXT Church National Gathering challenged me to continue to do that. I’m a quarter Swiss. I serve a congregation in Portland, Oregon, the whitest city in America. I have privileges out the wazoo because of the color of my skin. NEXT Church is helping me identify that privilege, helping me understand what happens to those who do not have the privilege of pale skin color (or education, or a decent pay with benefits, or a particular sexual orientation or gender identity, or so many other things), and helping me confront my own fears and insecurities about speaking out against racism in its many forms.

In particular, I continue to think about Paul Roberts’ workshop and how I can work on reflecting and building up the Beloved Community in my own context. His sermon, along with Alonzo Johnson’s sermon, was stirring and truth-telling – how can my preaching be the same, given that we come from such different places? Soong-Chan Rah’s presentation continues to encourage me to think about how I can lead the congregation in the present to be prepared for a church that will look very different, because of changing demographics, in the future.

I have come to terms with the fact that I am getting older, and I continue to need to confront my own racism and the racism around me, especially in the church. I am grateful to NEXT Church, and its leaders who give so much of their time and energy, to the endeavor: you encourage me to grow amid so much change.

Beth Merrill Neel serves as Co-Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon.  She blogs at, and she is excited about turning 53 in July.  When not at church she enjoys baking with her 11-year-old daughter and coloring as meditation.

2017 National Gathering Opening Worship

Alonzo Johnson preaches the opening worship service of the 2017 National Gathering.

Scripture: John 4:1-42

Alonzo Johnson is coordinator for the Self-Development of People Program (SDOP). SDOP is a branch of the PCUSA’s Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry. He is also the convener of the Educate A Child, Transform the World initiative. Alonzo has 25 years of experience specializing in urban, youth, education, creative arts and social justice ministries. He served an urban congregation in Philadelphia, PA, and worked as a volunteer chaplain for 9 years at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in LaGrange, KY. He has an MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently a DMin student at the same institution.