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Race, Relationship, Repentance

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 Andrew Foster Connors

Like most worthwhile things, the NEXT Church strategy team’s initial commitment to become 50%+ non-white in our leadership was born more out of Gospel idealism than out of competency. We believe that the “next Church” will reflect the culture in which the PC(USA) is situated, a culture that will be 50%+ non-white by 2042. God will make that a reality and the PC(USA) has an opportunity to be a part of it if we choose. I believe Paul’s words to the Galatians subordinating the divisions that we take for granted to a unity in Christ that is as clear as the color of the water in our baptisms. But as a Calvinist, I also know that racism coats everything in America. It warps the way we see each other. It’s warped the Church, too. There is no way to dismantle a sinful system that’s had generations to percolate, without a “gird up your loins” gritty commitment to abide with each other through the crap that we all swim in.

As you would expect, living into that commitment hasn’t been easy. One example of the way this came to the fore at the 2017 National Gathering was the Tuesday morning “crowd-sourced band.”  Steve Lindsley, a talented musician (and pastor, too!), had about as “nexty” an idea as you could come up with: to create a music team entirely off social media. The band would play well known “secular” music that would carry the worship service. It was risky, participatory, and agile – all values that NEXT Church has trumpeted as essential qualities for church to get beyond institutional rigidity. Steve was sensitive to a playlist that reflected diverse genres within the organizing idea. Then a member of our group raised the important question: was this going to be a bunch of white people leading “we shall overcome?” What about Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (both on the playlist)? And could two white guys really rap “Where Is the Love?” with any kind of worship integrity? Of course, having never met each other before we had to first find out, “Are we all white?”

When we discovered that we were, in fact, all white, some uncomfortable questions arose. Should we remove “Redemption Song” and “We Shall Overcome” to avoid cultural appropriation? Should we actively seek out persons of color to make the group less white? Should we try to contextualize each piece? Should we call the whole thing off? Immediately we were face to face with the ongoing, glaring sin that we all live with in the Presbyterian Church: we are whiter than God would have us be. We solicited some second opinions and came up with a plan. We would drop the white guys rapping “Where Is the Love” in favor of a video montage. We would add some context to the “We Shall Overcome” piece. Originally we were also going to add context to “Redemption Song” and to the other pieces, but in rehearsal it started to feel stilted, even defensive. We scrapped that plan, and added a few sentences of context at the beginning.

Evaluating the worship experience later, our diverse strategy team commended the group for some of our choices, but also critiqued the decision not to add context for the Bob Marley piece. One member of the team raised a question that was completely outside of my field of vision – whether the word “band” subtly signals “white music.” Could adjusting that one word result in a musical group with more diversity? Maybe. Maybe not. As we discussed other experiences of worship beyond Tuesday morning, an African-American member of the team was almost apologetic in her response: “It pains me to share my reaction with you. I don’t often share this kind of feeling in this kind of a setting.” But this strategy team member did share that feeling. And I am grateful for it.

Two things I’ve learned over the years as a person crossing racial boundaries (and other types of boundaries, too): healing is only possible when relationships are strong enough to handle the pain that comes to the surface; AND forgiveness and repentance (not perfection) are the only foundations on which to build real relationships. We’ll never grow as a church if we’re afraid of doing things that reveal our racism. We have to build relationships that are able to handle difference and division when they arise, calling out the racism that warps us, and moving forward together with courage and deeper trust. These are some of the conversations we’re having in NEXT Church leadership. With God’s grace, we’ll keep having them, building a broader community, and the church will move a little closer toward God’s dreams for us.


Andrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD – www.buildiaf.org), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. He serves on the executive team of NEXT Church. Andrew holds degrees from Duke University and Columbia Theological Seminary, was the 2001 recipient of the David H.C. Read Preaching Award, and was named 2016 “Marylander of the Year – Runner Up” along with two other BUILD colleagues for their work negotiating the largest Community Benefits Agreement in Baltimore history. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors. They live in Baltimore with their two children.

What are you going to do about it?

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By Andrew Foster Connors

Well, what are you going to do about it? 

The question continues to stop me in my tracks. Honestly, I can’t remember who asked it or what prompted it. It was probably in response to some comment that I, or another church leader, stated on more than one occasion. Something like:

“Presbytery stinks.”

“My congregation likes to talk about living the Gospel but doesn’t want to live it.”

“I’m tired of rearranging the chairs on the decks of a sinking ship.”

As a pastor, I know that people who critique without investing themselves in community for change are some of the most frustrating people in a church. Even so, I had become one of them. So partly out of guilt, I joined NEXT Church several years ago. I felt guilty that I had all kinds of criticism about the atrophied, distrustful, bureaucratic culture of our Presbyterian Church, but truth be told, I wasn’t doing anything to change it.

Guilt led me to get involved in NEXT, but it’s not what keeps me here.

What keeps me here is rediscovering a culture of connection rooted in real relationships.

What keeps me here is lifting up people all across our church who are reinventing possibilities for church today and are already leading us toward the church of tomorrow.

What keeps me here is the hope that I experience when church folk get together and articulate the new things that God is doing in and through the cracks and fissures of the broken body that is the church:

  • The 1600 people who’ve gathered to be inspired at the last four national gatherings and the 2000 more who’ve watched online,
  • The participants in the sixteen regional gatherings across the country,
  • The creative ideas for the practice of ministry shared each month in the online Church Leaders’ Roundtables,
  • The thoughtful, provocative blog posts that engage me in fresh thinking about ministry, and
  • NEXT’s participation in conversations with theologically diverse leaders across our denomination as we seek ways to be Presbyterian together in a time of denominational fracturing.

 

What are you going to do about it? 

I’ve now answered that question in several ways – serving on the NEXT Strategy team, attending regional and national gatherings, and making a personal contribution toward the incredibly lean budget of NEXT. My medium-sized church has answered it with a multi-year financial commitment toward the difficult organizing work that drawing diverse people together around a common vision entails. Complaint gets transformed into action and leads to new life for everybody involved.

But the truth is that to continue to be a midwife to the church that is becoming, we all have to answer that question in concrete ways that are consistent with our particular callings. I’m not naive to think that NEXT Church is the only community of people doing transformative work in the church. I can only testify to how transformative it has been and continues to be for me and for others I’ve listened to who believe that God is at work in the church.

If you share that conviction and that hope, I hope you will help us to spread the word about what NEXT is doing and partner with us to invest in the church that is becoming. You can make a financial gift online or by sending a check to:

Village Presbyterian Church (memo: NEXT Church)

6641 Mission Road

Prairie Village, KS, 66208

 

Together we can do something about it. Thanks.


 

Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and the co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. 

Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill

By Andrew Foster Connors

tension copy“Madame Mayor,” I said, opening the meeting as our group of leaders had planned, “we’re here today because we are disappointed in your lack of leadership.  You’ve told us you were going to double the number of jobs for youth and that hasn’t happened.  You said you would double funding for afterschool funding and that hasn’t happened.  And you’re closing rec centers after we agreed that Baltimore’s youth need more recreation, not less.  When you were elected you made a promise that you would be the Mayor for opportunities for youth.  We’ve come here today to see whether we can count on you to make good on your promises.”

Tension.  All community organizing expects tension at some point in time. Sometimes we introduce it intentionally.  We “agitate” leaders to produce a reaction.

Yet within the congregation, most of us are reluctant to introduce tension.  Some of us see introducing tension as inconsistent with pastoral ethics or approach.

Many of us in the pastorate either grew up in systems that trained us to smooth over tension, or were intentionally trained that reducing tension is part of our job description. Our comfort with tension has been further eroded by the qualities of tension that we have witnessed within our denomination and within our political environment that we have experienced as tension leading to the destruction of relationships rather than in the deepening of them.

And yet, even a novice student of the Jesus Way would recognize early on how much tension there is in the Gospels.  Anytime Jesus comes around, someone is likely to be challenged.  In any church that finds itself “stuck,” or leans toward a status quo that has or will endanger its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, tension is the fire that we light to get people moving.  Those of us who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education often report learning the most from the supervisor who asked the question that seemed too “impolite” or “aggressive” to ask.  “The patient said she was afraid of dying and you responded by asking her if she was enjoying the food. Why did you ask that question? Are you afraid of hearing her fears?”

We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence.  In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

Pastors who want to become leaders within and beyond their congregations can start by practicing creative tension in their own backyard.  Take one example – someone comes to you and says they are disappointed with the lack of small group ministry in your church.  In their previous church, they say, there were all kinds of small groups that were active.

Pastors afraid of tension are likely to react in a couple of predictable ways.  We might react as if this is our responsibility: “I really need to do something about the lack of small groups.  I need to work harder on this!”  Or we might react defensively: “Well, sorry, but this is not your former church, and we don’t have the resources for a small group ministry.” Both responses deprive the person of the possibility to grow as a leader.  They deprive the community of the potential gifts that arise as a result of this leader’s passion and willingness to act on that passion.

A pastor who is comfortable with tension, after listening well, might respond with all sorts of questions that preserve tension rather than dissipating it: “Have you talked with others who share your concern? Would you be willing to? Is this important enough to you that you would be willing to lead such a group or to recruit others to do so? How could I support you in that effort?” By placing some of the tension for the lack of small groups back on the person who first noticed it, the pastor gives that person the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential, and prevents the pastor from inadvertently becoming the fix-it person for everything that’s wrong with the church.

Of course, that person might not be a leader and might not be interested in becoming one.  But we’ll never know unless we’re willing to test them out.  Every pastor who introduces tension must be prepared to receive at least as much as she gives.  But this is a good thing.  Imagine the leader who returns to you and says, “I want to start three new small groups. I’m willing to recruit those leaders if you’re willing to train all of us.” Or imagine the mayor who responds to the tension our organization introduced into the room by coming back with, “I’m prepared to double afterschool funding, but I need you to meet with these five council people and pressure them to vote for my budget.”

Such leadership expands the involvement of all involved, asks more from everybody, and when directed by prayerful discernment, delivers more for the kingdom of God.

Admittedly this kind of agitation is an art, not a science.  Tension is only as effective as the strength of the relationships that bear it.  There is a fine line between effective agitation that challenges people to act in ways that are consistent with what they say is important to them, and irritation that poisons relationships unnecessarily.  But while irritation is never a good thing, neither is a boring church that never expects anything of its own members.  The best way to learn how to navigate tension is to practice it, evaluate it, and try again.

AFCAndrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and co-chair of the IAF community organization, BUILD.

From the Files – Community Organizing, TBT Edition

filesHere are a few posts from the past NEXT blogs that are worth a re-read:

Andrew Foster Connors suggests that good stewardship requires more than better preaching and shares how their congregation has used discipline of organizing to create a relational stewardship campaign.

Jessica Tate explores how the organizing universal of Organize, Dis-organize, Re-organize, Repeat helped to give new life to the deacons’ ministry.

Patrick Daymond shares the power of relational ministry in this video from the 2013 NEXT National Gathering.

And if you haven’t yet looked at the community organizing bibliography Jeff Krehbiel compiled last year, here it is.

photo credit: nhighberg via photopin cc

5 Questions with Andrew Foster Connors

We are launching a new series this month that highlights participants at the national gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina on March 4 – 5th, 2013. Presenters, preachers, teachers, and leaders were asked the same five questions and their thoughtful responses may be found here every week. The goal is to introduce you to people you’ll hear from in Charlotte and prime the pump for our time together. Hopefully, something here will spark an idea, thought, or question for you. We encourage you to reach out and initiate conversations that you can later continue in person. So without further ado …

Andrew Foster Connors

Workshop Leader

Andrew Foster ConnorsAndrew Foster Connors has served as the senior pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD since 2004. He currently serves as the clergy co-chair of BUILD, Baltimore’s largest citizen power organization, affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. BUILD is responsible for the first living wage ordinance in the country, the College Bound Scholarship Program, the rehabilitation of the Sandtown and Oliver communities, as well as the largest after school program in Baltimore. He serves on the strategy team for NEXT. He is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors. Together they have two children, two cats, one rabbit, and two fish.

1. Tell us about your ministry context.

I serve a congregation of approximately 300, with a fairly even split among all age groups. The church sanctuary, built in 1870 is situated in old Baltimore neighborhood, just a few blocks from an arts college, in a zip code that includes some of the highest poverty rates in the state of Maryland. Though many of the congregants have some experience in Christian community, for many, our congregation is their first Presbyterian experience. Racial and sexual identity diversity is strong and growing.

2. Where have you seen glimpses of “the church that is becoming”?

The congregation I serve almost closed its doors in the late 1970s due to a declining city population and associated economic challenges. During that time, the congregation was forced to reinvent itself. What I see emerging from those challenges is a willingness to try and fail, a joy in creativity, and a strong connection to the parts of the past that give life, with more and more experience in the work of grieving which is necessary in order to let go of ministry that may have been meaningful in the past, but no longer relevant today. It’s these experiences that help the church continue to connect with new generations without completely disconnecting from the theological and social witness of our tradition.

3. What are your passions in ministry? (And/or what keeps you up at night?)

My passion is broad based community organizing that views God’s locus of power for life and transformation in relationships. The tools for organizing shape my view of leadership in the pastorate, which is about organizing people to act on the parts of their faith which are most meaningful and life-giving to them and to the community we serve as disciples of Jesus Christ. For me, these tools have helped me continue to view leadership development as one of the most important roles I play, rather than the maintenance of a building, of programs, or of the status quo. These are the same tools that have also helped me act with a coalition of other faith groups, schools, and neighborhoods for justice in Baltimore.

What keeps me up at night is managing my calendar, and sometimes one of our cats.

4. What is one thing you are looking forward to at the NEXT Gathering?

Seeing old friends, colleagues, and debating partners, along with meeting all kinds of creative, energetic people who are excited about ministry, rather than simply depressed by the state of the church. Sharing what we’re excited about. Helping those who are struggling with specific concerns imagine new ways forward. Singing with people who like to sing. Identifying new leaders and finding ways to support them.

5. Describe NEXT in seven words or less.

The flint igniting the fuel already there.

2011 National Gathering Testimony: Mission

Andrew Foster Connors: Lessons from Community Organizing for the Missional Leader

[Andrew’s talk begins at: 2:54] “Missional action almost always has evangelical results,” says Andrew Foster Connors in this 20-minute talk on missional leadership, or, as he calls it, “The Pastor as Organizer.” In this inspiring talk, Andrew names five leadership insights he’s gained from community organizing and how they’ve shaped the congregation he serves into more faithful, fruitful followers of Christ. Tim Hart Andersen introduces.

Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and serves on the NEXT Strategy Team. Tim Hart Andersen is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN and serves on the NEXT Advisory Team.