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Intentional about the Good

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 Essie Koenig-Reinke

I was eager to read Erin and Ben Napier’s recent memoir Make Something Good Today when it finally hit the shelf at my local bookstore. The book’s pages are like a dirt road that winds its way through Erin and Ben’s lives from the time they were growing up to the front porch of their home today. It’s beautiful, honest, and real in a way most memoirs are. It’s the kind of book that is meant to be read on the front porch with a cup of coffee, and sunshine. In short, Make Something Good Today is lighthearted, but through the telling of their own story the authors invite readers to gently ponder their own.

There is a part in this book where Erin gets real about life, work, love, and anxiety, and how it affects her ability to connect with her sense of call. She names the vague yet poignant, messiness of life, as well as the impact of how much her anxiety and worry were having on her daily life. Then she started a journal, where she blogged one good thing that happened during the day. No matter how wonderful or awful her day was, she blogged about one good thing. This is the practice changed how she saw herself and the world around her.

I am currently serving as an interim coordinator of youth ministry. Nothing has quite prepared me for all the weird and wonderful things about this job. Most days, I love it. It’s messy and magical. However, there are times when being in an interim time is just plain hard. Sometimes, the mess feels less magical and more monstrous. In this liminal space, I’ve noticed how easy it can be for anxiety and worry to weave themselves into the conversation. It’s almost natural. Then before we know it, we’re teetering on the fence between feeling indecisive and overwhelmed. I found myself resonating with Erin as she unpacked all of these things in her book. So, as I soaked up the words in Make Something Good Today, I found myself taking a step back from all the worry and reflecting on all the good around me. I even made the decision about being intentional about pointing out the good.

By doing so, the joy and goodness in my life and ministry became tangible. Whether writing it down in a notebook or making a mental note good things that are happening. Our youth ministry has also started to notice the joy around too. It was as almost as if by paying attention to the good around us, we were more present with each other. We listen deeper, and are finding ourselves more open to the movement of the spirit together. It’s exciting, and energizing, and holy.

This has by no means has fixed all the overwhelming, anxious feelings. However, acknowledging the good has empowered me to cultivate joy in this liminal space, and be more present in this “in between” moment, both in my own personal journey and in our ministry. It is so easy to get caught up in the next season, the next program, and forget to hold on to joy found in every day good things.


Essie is the Youth Ministries Coordinator at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. She sees herself as a recovering perfectionist and on the lookout for an overachiever’s support group. She loves coffee, lavender, mystery books, and sunflowers.

Treating Fear: Immunotherapy for Sessions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Kussmaul

I am not an allergist. I am not a shot-room nurse. I am an immunotherapy patient.

I am allergic to many things: dogs, cats, dust mites, molds, and a whole slew of grasses, trees, and pollens. I receive three injections per week: injections of the very things to which I am allergic. The hope is that, over time and with steady increases in the amount and concentration of serum, my immune system will adjust in a way that reduces the allergic response. I will still be allergic, but my allergies will not compromise my life and actions to the same degree.

So how does immunotherapy relate to governing bodies, particularly sessions?

When I think about the sessions with whom I have served and consulted, I see two shared traits: sessions, congregations and pastors are allergic to fear. Addressing this fear with principles from immunotherapy is effective in “treating” this allergy.

Fear, like my allergies, exists. Acknowledge its presence and impact.

  • Recognize symptoms: are we stuck, avoiding or side-stepping conversations, or continually postponing decisions? Symptoms of fear can present as a silent minority or as a silencing majority, they can be found in parking lot meetings, flurries of post-meeting emails, and in “people are saying” statements. Notice the symptoms.
  • Ask questions. “What are we not talking about?” “Whose voices are we not hearing?” “What other conversations are happening about _____?” “What is preventing us from taking action?” “Why does it feel like we are tip-toeing?”
  • Be direct: “Of what are we afraid?

Fear, like my allergies, can be identified. Be precise.

  • Identify the fears. There are probably more than one. Listing the fears provides clarity and facilitates movement. Listing the fears sparks conversation and feeds meaningful dialogue. The list becomes a starting place and a tool for reflection and assessment.
  • Be precise. It’s not enough to say “tree pollen.” We have to know if it is birch or cedar or pecan. It’s the same with an allergy to fear. It’s not enough to say “We are afraid of change.” Figure out the specifics. Drill down. Are we afraid of offending or disappointing someone? Afraid someone will leave? Afraid of taking a stand or being labeled the ______ church? Afraid we will decline beyond sustainability? Afraid of making a “bad” decision?

Fear, like my allergies, can be addressed. Take action.

  • Acknowledge the truth of inaction: there’s no such thing as “doing nothing” because “doing nothing” results in something. Gather information, discuss, discern, and do something. Action is almost always better than inaction. And when you discover a better way, simply regroup and head in that direction.
  • Speak for yourself. Practice, facilitate, and expect direct communication from others. Try “I am interested in your thoughts” when you hear “People are saying…” Or “To whom are you referring? I will speak with them directly.”
  • Agree on common language. Create a shared glossary (mental or actual) of words and phrases to explain the action, set expectations, and communicate the process. Be consistent. Establish an alternative narrative. Think about changing “We’ve always ______” to “In the past, we ____and now we ____.”

“Treating” fear, like my allergies, requires consistency and persistence.

  • Immunotherapy is most effective when you receive injections for three to five years. Even when ministry is busy or after reactions that require ice packs, hydrocortisone cream, and extra medicine. In those moments, I have to recall where I started, assess my improvement, celebrate my progress and remember: it takes time for an immune system to adjust how it reacts. It is the same with sessions, congregations, and pastors. “Treating” fear requires consistency and persistence. Even during Advent and Lent. Especially during times of heightened congregational anxiety.
  • Notice where you have responded to fear more effectively. Look at that original list of fears and celebrate the progress you are making. Embrace your role as pastor-encourager. Highlight success. Point to growth. Remember: it takes time for a session, congregation, or pastor to adjust how they respond to fear.

Fear, like my allergies, will never completely go away.

  • I will never be free of allergies. Particular seasons of the year will always be more challenging. While I hope I progress to the point of not needing daily medicine, I feel certain my medicine cabinet will always contain Zyrtec, Singular, and Benadryl for the times I need extra support.
  • There will always be particular topics about which sessions, congregations, and pastors will need extra support. This support may look like reconnecting with all or part of this process. It may look like inviting a colleague or consultant to watch, listen, and offer input. And it may be as simple as reading Scripture: Joshua 1:1-9, Psalm 27, Isaiah 41:1-20 & 43 or any of the countless occurrences of the phrase “Fear not!”

Last week was an easy immunotherapy week: no reaction. This week required an ice pack. This is the reality of immunotherapy. Treating allergies, whether dust-mites or fear, is a process. It takes time. And as my favorite shot-room nurse says, “Slow and steady wins the allergy race.”


Katherine Kussmaul is the pastor of St Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC and is a graduate of The Aquinas Institute of Theology, Duke Divinity School and The College of Wooster.

Letting Anxiety Go

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mads Benishek

We find ourselves in the wilderness for all kinds of reasons: to sulk (Jonah), to hide (Elijah), to mourn (Ruth), because we are called there (Jesus), and because we have no other option (Hagar). We don’t go there willingly most of the time. The church didn’t choose the wilderness. Indeed, we’ve feared it and puffed ourselves up, shunning it and pretending that we have all the answers and have no need of the wilderness. Yet the wilderness could care less about our self-importance and best-laid plans.

So here we find ourselves: plunged into, deposited, or chased out into the wilderness. After panicking a bit, we sit on the ground with our back to a tree trunk and stare into the sky for a while, thinking, “Now what?” Our defenses drop. We look and for once really see what’s around us, if only because we no longer have anything to distract us, out here where the sky is huge and rocky cliffs rise in the distance. It’s then that the wilderness surprises us. We notice a spring of water coming up from dry ground, a deer leaping for joy, the wind whispering, “What if…?” and “Look!”

The wilderness surprised me in small ways at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering: a corner with pillows for sitting on the floor during keynote and worship, communion stations that seemed to pop up all around the room, roadside markers throughout for us to leave notes or mementos or just things we’d forgotten. The spirituality studio where I played with paper, scissors and glue for a while. As I noticed and explored these treasures of the wilderness, giving my curiosity free reign, I felt my fear and anxiety melt away, becoming humble, open, learning.

I wonder if the church is starting to do this too. I wonder if we’re realizing that we have so many wondrous things to learn once we let all our very adult-seeming anxieties go and we fumble around, ask questions, listen, explore, and thereby discover gifts, insights, tools, and beauty that our very self-important gaze, with our very adult-seeming blinders, would have overlooked.

At the Gathering we learned from community organizers, academics, artists, deacons, elders, businesspeople, and musicians in addition to pastors and academics. The Spirit is in the wilderness, stirring up these prophets, apostles and teachers in and beyond our midst. The Spirit is in the wilderness and at the Gathering I saw the inklings of the church stepping out to follow, a child-like and humble church with big eyes and an open heart eager to learn, to try, to wonder, and even to play. I hope the church, that is each of us, follows our childlike curiosity, that we open ourselves to being surprised by each person, ordained or not, churched or not, and by each place where we find ourselves. Then, together with our siblings in all walks of life, we’ll wonder at and celebrate and join the Holy Spirit at work all around us.


Mads Benishek (he/him/his) is a recent seminary graduate and candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. Currently Mads leads an LGBTQ+ dinner church in north-central New Jersey and is starting a young adult group focused on spirituality, the environment, and local food.

The Kingdom of God Is

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Chris Currie

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come now, and open in us, the joys of your kingdom.”

–Taizé Chant

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but there is a wealth of colorful descriptions that attempt to capture all our contemporary anxieties. Two of my favorites are ‘dumpster fire,’ and ‘hot mess.’ According to the Oxford dictionary, a hot mess is ‘a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.’ It has been in our common lexicon slightly longer than ‘dumpster fire,’ which was just recently added to the Oxford dictionary and is defined as ‘a chaotic or disastrously mishandled situation.’ We live in a time of deep cultural anxiety and despair, with real and imagined hot messes and dumpster fires seemingly around every corner.

In such a time, what does the church say and do? Add to the drumbeat of distrust, name-calling, and resentment in our world? Shut up and just try to capture our market share? Storm the barricades? Perhaps the most countercultural posture the church can proclaim and seek to embody is one of confidence and hopefulness. Such a way of faith and action may demand that we live and act counter to our own preferences at times. It may require that we refrain from our knee-jerk inclinations to throw red meat to our ideologically preferred church tribes. But more than anything, such a countercultural way of living in the world is tinged with a refusal to despair. ‘Do not be afraid,’ is a refrain we hear throughout scripture from the prophet of the exile to the angels at the empty tomb. As we sing in the chant from the Taizé community, ‘the kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ These are the only distinct gifts the Christian community has to offer to our world, and in spite of their meagerness and lack of measurable virtues, they are gifts desperately needed in a world held captive by its own anxiety, despair, and fear.

My hope is that this Sarasota Statement was tinged with that confidence and hopefulness, that Christ has come and reconciled us, this world, and all creation, and that we refuse to let each other, our neighbors, even our enemies, succumb to anything less. The ‘real world’ is the kingdom of God, not the evening news, not our latest social media feed, not whichever ideological worldview seems to have the upper hand at the moment.

Our confession to trust, grieve, and commit seeks to challenge and comfort each other, our church, and the larger world with the Kingdom of God, but that’s not all. We also urgently proclaim to each other, our church, and our world that there is much more to do until we become what we already are in that kingdom.


Chris Currie has served as pastor/head of staff at First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, since the fall of 2013. He is married to Stephanie Smith Currie, a speech therapist and clinical instructor at LSU School of Allied Health, and together they have three children: Thomas, Harrison, and Corinne. Chris holds a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity.

Resist Right Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathy Wolf Reed

Earlier this year I was fortunate to read Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Like many of Brueggemann’s works, the book is both brief and powerful, making it (somewhat ironically) an ideal choice for those in professional ministry.

Striking to me was Brueggemann’s description of ancient Egypt: defined by anxiety, overly concerned with productivity, and overcome with an idolatrous worship of commodity. This exhausting mode of existence is not only an apt description of modern day society but modern day mainline Protestantism as well. I suppose that’s why I have not been able to get this book out of my mind.

Amidst threats that somehow our hard-earned commodities might not be safe or our ability to be productive could become compromised, human fear propels us into overdrive. We believe that if we could just do or have more, we might attain the peace our hearts long for – peace that in truth comes only from relationship with God. In the church, the tendency toward commoditization manifests itself as measuring ministry in numbers: membership, budgets, baptisms. We look across the street at what others are doing and think, “Maybe we should start a new program for singles/coffee ministry/contemporary worship service.”

Brueggemann names the flaw in our logic, describing the “endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough… yet” (page 13). He reminds us how in the Sabbath commandment, our God “nullifies that entire system of anxious production” (page 27). God gives us not just an option but a direct order to place boundaries on our inclinations to perpetuate anxiety.

“Such a faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance.” Brueggemann writes. “It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment” (page 31). He goes on to remind us how Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

I cannot think of a more relevant book for today’s world and church. I am grateful for the gift of a biblical framework through which to understand my own anxieties and the restlessness of the society and systems in which I serve. I recommend this book to all church leaders as we continue to navigate anxious times.


Kathy Wolf Reed has served as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, AL since 2014. The Mayberry-esque setting of Auburn provides a context in which Kathy and her family (co-pastor husband Nick and their three small children) can enjoy all the perks of small town life while the presence of a major university offers them constant opportunities to attend interesting programs and cheer on the Tigers from football games to equestrian meets.

Urgency Over Anxiety

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Ken McFayden, academic dean and professor of ministry and leadership development at Union Presbyterian Seminary, considers anxiety and urgency in the church. What is your sense of urgency? What urgencies do you hear from others in the church? Where do we find common ground in these sources of urgency? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

Finding Care in Fast Times

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Chris Tuttle

It was another busy Thursday night, shuffling between meetings.  I was getting (another) cup of coffee, grabbing a stack of papers off the copier I was going to need.  I was moving too quickly, not doing anything as well as I would like.  It’s that time in the fall when ministry disappears in between kickoff of the programmatic year, stewardship, then, before you know it, Advent.  A lot has been changing around here that is exciting, but change produces anxiety.  Stewardship season produces anxiety.  And when people are anxious, they are not likely to be at their best.  In these seasons when the pace becomes overwhelming it’s easy for me to lose perspective, to forget why ministry matters, and what a privilege it is to do this work.

photo credit: Life of a New Yorker via photopin (license)I noticed an older gentlemen coming towards me down the hall.  I didn’t really have time for him, but he stepped in the way.  I began my normal, “Hi, good to see you,” and blow right by move.  He’s a newer member and has come with great enthusiasm.  “So much is happening around here,” he said. “It’s wonderful.  Thank you for your work.”  I feigned gratitude, smiled, and, in retrospect, he could tell.  But he stepped in front of me again, and put his hands on my shoulders.  “I go walking every morning.  And when I walk in the morning, I pray for you.  I want you to know that.  When I walk in the mornings I pray for you.”

As the pace picks up I remember those prayers, and give thanks to God for the kind people around us who persist in their care for us, whether or not we are in a position to receive it.


chris_tuttleChris Tuttle pastors at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC and serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

Commissioned by Our Mental Illness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Marielle (Marz) Evans

Even after all this time, it is still hard to say it.

It is hard to confess, to admit, to say aloud: I am mentally ill.

Maybe it is hard because it feels somehow dishonest, like a white lie that excuses my little quirks. Because, on my meds, I function and behave most of the time like a perfectly normal, if not high functioning, adult woman.

Or maybe it is hard because it feels too true — because I know how it is to live inside my own head, to worry about whether I’ve missed a dose of my meds, to not being able to tell my husband what is wrong because I don’t know what is wrong— it just is. I know the struggle all too well and it’s hard to say that things aren’t okay. I struggle with that black hole of depression that threatens to swallow me whole and I grapple with the high of mania that promises roads paved in gold but ending in ruin.

And I struggle with opening my mouth and saying words like: bipolar, anxiety, depression, and saying words like: me, in the same sentence.

I had a dear friend tell me once that me being honest about my bipolar disorder changed the way she looked at mental illness and gave her the courage to step into counseling for the first time. And that’s the best result I could ask for. If my story can battle the stigma against the mentally ill in any small way, it was so worth it.

But I’ve also had a dear friend tell me that she couldn’t handle me, handle my illness, my mood swings, my panic attacks. I’ve lost friendships because of my brain chemistry. Because of being an emergency. Because I was too much to deal with. Because their versions of Christianity don’t have room for a person like me — a crazy person.

And so, with the hope of encouraging others but walking with those wounds of rejection and hurt still healing on my heart, I shyly confess that I am stable, I am happy, I am in love and I am mentally ill.

And I may be forever. My brain chemistry may never be correct (and I thank God for my meds every single day).

But here I am, saying it aloud. Because these things are worth talking about, even if it terrifies you. Because we, all of us — whether you are clinically depressed or just having a bad day — need to be reminded that we aren’t alone in this. And we must — MUST — remind each other that our diagnoses, our diseases, our disabilities do not define us.

I am not a bipolar woman.

I am a wife, a pastor, an artist, a darn good cook, a writer, an aunt to two amazing littles, a mediocre iPhone photographer, a terrible but shameless dancer. I am a Princeton Seminary graduate, an honors student (in too many ways), a lover of summer-ripe cherries and old rocking chairs and porch swings and those bottle cap candies that taste kind of like soda. I am a mom to my puppy, Eliot, who is more monster than dog and who believes that he is also the size of a mouse and can sit comfortably on our laps.

And I have a diagnoses. Of bi-polar, for which I take daily meds that help me not let my serotonin and dopamine levels determine how my life goes.

It is not who I am, or what I am. My bipolar is a part of me. Just like that slightly annoying scar in the middle of my chest from when I had chicken pox as a little kid. It is not my fault, or my parent’s fault, or red food dye 40’s fault (in my humble opinion). It is life – just with more extreme ups and downs.

So if you are where I often am, and finding it hard to say aloud that you are hurting, struggling, scared, scarred, sadder more days than you are happy— then take heart. Truly — take heart. There are many of us, and we are not alone.

And please, if you can, if that black hole that threatens to swallow you from within will allow just a little bit — have grace with yourself. And allow yourself the grace of letting someone in. Into the mess and the madness. Into the mood swings and the medication diaries. Into the altogether hard and the sometimes hopeless. Into the mental illness that doesn’t define you but certainly feels definite.

You don’t have to shout it from the roof tops, but I invite you to maybe tell a friend. Tell a pastor or a mentor or a professor who you know won’t laugh you out of the room. And if you don’t feel safe with any of those, find a therapist. Yelp them, Google the good Lord out of them, look up whether they’ll be a fit. You are the only one who knows you inside and out, so don’t feel like they are going to fix you.

Because the truth is: you don’t need fixing, you need a safe place to say aloud the things that are hard to say.

Have grace with yourself, and you’ll get there. Some days will be harder than others— just ask my husband and friends and mentors. Some days will be so good that you’ll completely forget you ever had a diagnosis from the DSM. Those days you’ll forget to take your meds — because: what meds!?— and then you’ll wake up in the morning with a headache and take them right away and everything will be okay. Or maybe it won’t. Because meds don’t make real life go away. And sometimes real life is sorrow and lament and quiet and hard. And a handful of chemicals isn’t going to take away the pain and the sin of this broken world.

I want you to know that you are not alone. That your sadness doesn’t define you. Nor do your meds. Your panic attacks don’t either, nor how long you’ve been sober (although sobriety is certainly something to celebrate). Psychological diagnoses don’t define us anymore than type 1 diabetes or turf toe does. They are all chronic illnesses. They are all not our fault.

I may have a hard time saying aloud what I want to say sometimes. I may struggle to speak up about my experience of living life with chronic anxiety and persistent mood swings.

But I refuse to be silent about this. About the fact that there is hope, and there is healing, and that we have the choice to believe that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet. I refuse to shut up about why cooking a meal for friends is nearly as effective for me as my mood stablizer, or why writing is a version of therapy. I refuse to be silent about being a pastor and being a patient of a psychologist and psychiatrist because those two can happen together and it will be okay. I refuse to be silent in telling the world that stories, your everyday stories, matter. Your stories and your scars and your big scary dreams all matter because they bring something new and needed to the table of grace. We have an opportunity to see our diagnoses, our depression, our daily meds or weekly therapy sessions (or both) as the commissioning they are. We are commissioned by our mental illness to go out into the world and show them, tell them, sing at them, dance for them, preach to them that we are not defined, we are not limited by our diseases.

So, where ever you are in your journey, say this aloud with me: this is living thing is an adventure worth taking. And there is a mission field to serve that needs people like you and me, to bring the Gospel that Jesus didn’t come to the perfect, but to the sick and that God has a place for those of us who come into His kingdom with a bit of a limp.


Marielle Evans

Marielle (Marz) Evans is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who is serving at a non-profit for youth development in Austin, TX