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Big, Uncertain Moments

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Tanner Pickett and Elizabeth Link are curating a series that will reflect experiences of those in the beginnings of their ministry, particularly through the lens of Trent@Montreat. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear reflections reflections from past and future participants, track leaders, and members of the leadership team of Trent@Montreat. We hope these stories will encourage you along your journey – and maybe encourage you to join us next April! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Norwood

Editors’ note: Trent@Montreat is created for people in their first ten years of ministry. Why is that relevant? As they saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and seminary can only teach you so much. Most people get into their chosen profession only to realize that there are things that they are not prepared to deal with. This post and the previous post are from two people on the cusp of this transition, reflecting on their time in seminary and sharing their hopes for their future ministry.

Often the events that stand out most clearly in our mind are those big, life changing moments. Those turning points where a decision you made or an event that occurred launched you down a new road: graduation, the birth of a child, a milestone achievement, a big move, a discernment process, a calling.

For me, it was the day I moved to college. It felt like everything I had known, every comfort I had for the last 18 years was gone; I was leaving it all behind and starting over. In the months leading up to the move, I tried to imagine what college life would be like: my dorm room, eating in the cafeteria, learning in a huge auditorium. But every time I would try to picture these snapshots of my future college life, my mind came up blank. I had no idea what my dorm room would look like, who my friends would be, or what I would study. My life would be unlike anything it had ever been before, in a good way, I hoped.

Photo from Louisville Seminary Facebook page

Similarly, when I entered seminary, my mind was blank as I tried to picture what it was exactly that I would be learning. Greek and Hebrew, Bible, theology, and then three years later I would graduate totally ready for ministry, right?! What I couldn’t have been able to picture about my seminary education was how my worldview expanded and was shaped. Theology and social justice intertwined in a way I’d never known before. As I learned about racism, liturgy, the Old Testament, sexuality, and ethics, I began to see the world in new and different ways.

I have one year left of my seminary education; one year remaining in this bubble of intensive learning and then out into the wide world I’ll go. Again, I’ll find myself on the precipice of a big life moment, one where nothing is certain about what my life will look like.

But what I have found in these big, uncertain moments is that there are new experiences to be had and a whole lot to learn. When I moved to college, not only was I learning in the classroom, but I was also learning how to navigate the world as an independent adult. When I began seminary, my learning lead to a transformation in my understanding of faith and ministry. After I graduate from seminary and begin ministry, I know there is more learning to be done because no matter how well I think I may have grasped the concepts in seminary, there’s a depth of knowledge I have yet to uncover about real life, hands on ministry. I have been warned about this gap of information from pastors who often like to spout, “they don’t teach you that in seminary.”

I am bound to uncover this knowledge not all at once, not in three years or even ten, but over the course of my life. I believe that the learning that began in seminary will never stop. Whether I am navigating big transitions or the daily grind, my hope is that I will never stop learning and growing because to continue to learn and grow is to lean into the person God is calling me to be.


Katherine Norwood is a 3rd year Masters of Divinity student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the PCUSA. In her free time she enjoys cooking, yoga, and being outside.

Skipping A Step: Resisting the Quick Fix and Embracing Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Charlie Lee

How can we fix it? This is a question posed in our congregations every day. Common elements of decline such as sagging attendance, diminished donations, or a general lack of excitement can create significant anxiety among church leaders and create a sense of crisis in our congregations. Well-intentioned church leaders who observe these crises are often quick to call for and implement solutions that are designed to directly address these problems.

This is what we did in my own congregation. We observed a decline in giving and attendance, the metrics that have traditionally defined a successful congregation. Therefore, we gathered leaders together to design a solution to our crisis. We started a new worship service, added a new staff member, and even made plans to remodel a portion of our building. While these steps were successful in granting us some temporary gains, in time we learned that our solutions were not lasting ones and eventually we found ourselves right back where we started.

So what went wrong? Why did our well-thought-out solutions not have a lasting effect on our problems? As we wrestled with these questions, we learned that we had skipped a step in our efforts to quickly address our congregational crises. We had moved directly from the observations of our perceived problems to interventions we thought would address them. What we failed to do was to put in place practices that might help us interpret our initial observations so that we might gain new learnings that could then be applied in the design and execution of future interventions.

My guess is that our congregation is not the only one who is skipping this important step as we struggle to adapt in these times of rapid change. However, we can no longer afford to do so if we hope to face the adaptive challenges that lay before us and remain faithful to God’s collective calling on our communities of faith. We must take on the task of developing practices of assessment and evaluation within our congregations, and if we do so they can help our congregations do three things:

  1. Discern: The metrics of attendance and financial giving have for too long defined the success or failure of a congregation. Vital ministry is about so much more than counting “butts and bucks.” It is about faithfully following the calling that God places upon us. Churches by nature are “heliotropic,” meaning that just like a plant leans towards the direction of the sunlight, a church will move towards the source of energy or focus that is present in the system. If we continue to focus on outdated metrics, then this will only continue to produce anxiety and a feeling of continual crisis in our congregations. However, if we utilize tools of assessment and evaluation, then we can better focus on continually discerning the dynamic calling of God upon our congregations, and therefore begin to define success in our ministries with an eye towards fruitfulness rather than fear.
  2. Learn: “You don’t know – that you don’t know – what you don’t know.” This was a favorite line of one of my undergrad college professors. He repeated it often to us in an effort to encourage our curiosity and inspire our learning. His point was that there are always new things to learn and opportunities to go deeper in that learning than we ever thought possible. The same is true in our congregations. Tools of assessment and evaluation are the key to opening up new realms of possibilities in our ministries. They help keep us from moving immediately to towards implementing solutions to problems and instead take a deep dive on the issues behind what we have observed. Often, in this process, we discover that the perceived problem we were so focused on in the beginning is really just a symptom of a much larger issue. It is these new learnings that make it possible for us to address not only the technical challenges of ministry, but the more adaptive and complex issues facing our congregations.
  3. Tell the Story: It has been a few years now since the congregation I serve began experimenting with different practices of assessment and evaluation. The most successful practice by far that we have adopted has been the practice of storytelling. An important part of assessment and evaluation is capturing data; however, if all the data that is captured is merely quantitative, then it will not give a complete picture of all that is occurring within a congregation. Numbers and statistics can only communicate so much. Qualitative data is required in order share those things that cannot be measured but can be observed. The assessment practices we put in place gave us the tools to begin asking our congregation to tell us their stories. As much as possible, we began sharing these stories in worship and through our publications so that all could hear the good news of how lives were being transformed through Christ and how God was at work in and through the ministries of this congregation. The practice of storytelling has changed the conversation within our congregation, enabling us to operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

I am grateful to the leadership of NEXT Church and the individuals who have worked so hard to produce resources for assessment and evaluation. I believe the utilization of these resources can help keep us from looking for the next quick fix and instead provide a consistent way for us to become more attentive to God’s calling.


Charlie Lee is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He received a Doctorate of Ministry Degree in 2015 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His primary focus of study was on the implementation of formative evaluation in congregations.

Transformation Through Tradition

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.

John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY, considers how tradition informs our present living. How can we access our great tradition in ways that are approachable and honest? What would such transformation look like? 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.

Waves of Change

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.

Steve Lindsley, pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, considers waves of change at the church – while at the beach. What waves of change is your congregation or context currently facing? How are you as a leader helping negotiate that change? 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.

Change and God’s Future

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.

Glen Bell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, FL, and a member of our executive team, reflects on congregational change and God’s future. 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.

The Art of Making Small Changes

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Libby Rollins

Small changes can lead to new possibilities. Think about a child learning how to take those first few steps. Standing on wobbling legs trying to balance and lift one foot to plop it awkwardly down a few inches ahead. It takes some children many tries until they finally figure it out. But eventually, those initial shaky steps turn into sure-footed forward motion, which leads to walking and then running. The child, no longer limited to what is in an arm’s reach, has now opened up the possibility of a much larger world to explore.

baby feetI find this is a great metaphor for leading change in the church. As an intentional interim pastor, in each new congregation, I look for ways to introduce small changes.  I do this for two reasons –

  1. I have limited time with a congregation; and
  2. in the midst of a pastoral change, small changes are all some people will agree to, since they feel they are already in the midst of great, sweeping change.

My reality is this: I never have enough time with a congregation. Just as we begin counting “firsts” – first day in the office, first Easter, first funeral, first stewardship season; it seems in almost the same breath we begin counting down to the “lasts” – last Session meeting, last communion, last day in the pulpit. Eighteen-ish months flies by much too fast, as the calendar flips weeks and seasons at a hurried pace.  Huge, sweeping change takes a long time. It takes time to dream it, get it approved, manage the emotions around it, and enact it. I don’t have the gift of enough time to work towards big changes. I don’t have the time to build the leadership equity I would need to spend to enact big change. But I hope that in planting the seeds of success with small changes, energy and confidence will build momentum and lead to a willingness to embrace larger changes. Small things lead to bigger things, which leads to new possibilities.

I also find that people tend to have a “quota” on the amount of change they are willing to endure. During a time of a pastoral transition, when the face in the office and pulpit is changing, temporary, and yet unknown, it can feel like EVERYTHING about the church is in transition. While I don’t believe that to be true, I’ve heard it from multiple voices in all types of churches. So big change in the midst of what feels like big change, for some, is just too much at once. But small change sometimes is still welcome and tolerable.

So what does small change in the church look like? It’s different for each congregation. In one church it was moving the communion table forward so that it was visible to the worshippers, which changed the way the sanctuary looked, but it also changed the way they experienced the sacrament. In another church it was a new way of doing stewardship and budgeting and reporting, allowing for a new understanding of blessings and thankfulness, and a better understanding of how they used their resources. In one church it was a change in the focus of a staff position, allowing for new possibilities and a new structure. In another church it was as simple as moving some old furniture, buying a coat of paint and a community coffee pot, and creating a space to fellowship and share information. I found that success in navigating each of these changes led to excitement to try other new things and an increased willingness to engage in bigger change.

Once we succeed, we believe we will succeed again. When I finally get around to cleaning off my desk, it looks all neat and tidy. Then I go home feeling the rush of accomplishment and the excitement of organization and want to tackle the junk drawer in the kitchen. Next it’s organizing the laundry room or the coat closet. The tasks get bigger and bigger, require a larger time commitment, and have greater impact, but that first success breeds energy and helps to open my eyes to the greater possibilities.

As leaders in the church, clergy or lay, installed or interim, I believe we should all be planting seeds of small change until they blossom into possibilities for greater change, leading us down a path of massive change. For even small changes can lead us to exciting new possibilities.


1Libby Rollins currently lives in Virginia Beach, VA, and has been serving as interim pastor for 15 years in 7 different congregations. Her husband serves as an installed pastor, so she doesn’t move between churches. In addition, she has taught Transitional Ministry Education. When not at church, you can find her cheering for her son on a baseball field, in the kitchen trying out a new recipe, or sticking her toes in the sand at the beach.

Change, Presbyterian Style

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Wagner

How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? It takes a council, in stated meeting, to determine if a new light bulb is in the ministry plan of the council, if there is funding for a new light bulb, and if persons can be called who will faithfully carry out this mission.

So change doesn’t come easy to Presbyterians; we are layered-in-steps type of folk, and to be honest, we aren’t really excited about change. Yet in this new milieu, change seems to be the buzz word. Our world is changing right before our eyes.

So we need to figure out this change thing. As a transitional pastor, I experience change every two years or so; I change locations, often times my home and what I know as normal. And I am serving churches that are experiencing change, whether the wanted it or not. I feel like I live and breathe CHANGE.

kotter changeI have repeatedly turned to Dr. John Kotter, former Harvard Business professor, author of 18 books, considered the authority on leadership and change, to help me.  Kotter has studied and written about change for 30 years. While John writes for the business world, I have found his process to work in the church world as well. His book Leading Change has been widely recognized as seminal work in the field of change management. It introduced the 8 step process to lead organizational change.

Kotter’s work in change has continued as he observed that no matter how you look at it, the rate at which our world is changing is increasing but our ability to keep up with it is not. Kotter talks to the business world about what remains the same and why change is necessary. I think we can translate that to the church world and when Kotter talks about specific changes to our organizations, I see this in most churches I serve:

  • We are falling behind the competition today
  • We are ill-prepared to think about the church of the future
  • We are too slow in executing change
  • We are too slow in innovate
  • We are too siloed to collaborate

Our leaders are disengaged from their roles and colleagues; there is a false urgency about the “dying church.” And we believe what got us here will get us to the future.

In 2011, I was able to help First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, IL make the decision to sell their 105-year-old building and merge with the neighboring congregation, 2nd Congregational Church. We used the Kotter 8 step process of change for the framework of enabling this 176-year-old congregation effectively change who they were and where they were physically located. Kotter says the 8 step process is perfect way to respond to or affect episodic change in infinite and sequential ways. It drives change with a small, powerful core group, it functions within a traditional hierarchy and focuses on doing one thing very well in a linear fashion over time.

The First Presbyterian session identified their guiding coalition, which they called the Penguin Group after Kotter’s parable “Our Iceberg is Melting.” In the fall of  2011, after months of  studying Kotter, the session recommend to the congregation that the only option was for them to sell the building. They had about 3 years of money left; the sense of urgency was present and real. The congregation agreed without knowing what would happen next. They created a slogan call “Close, Move or Merge.” They quickly threw out close; they were still a vital worshipping community in the neighbor. The guiding team created the first short term win after a congregational survey said everyone wanted to stay together. The guiding team then helped the congregation create scouting teams to visit neighboring congregations (both Presbyterian and UCC) to check them out and find out if one congregation was a better fit than others. By June of 2012, the congregation knew it wanted to merge with 2nd Congregational (located adjacent  to the First Presbyterian building). As meetings between the two churches began in earnest, and 2nd formed their own coalition, the excitement began to grow for both congregations. By-laws were created, furniture was moved, new offices made and decorated. It was an exciting process to be part of. On December 31, 2012, First Presbyterian Church closed it doors, sold the building and moved down the street to a new church: 2nd Congregational/First Presbyterian Church. CHANGE occurred.


beth-wagnerBeth Wagner is a transitional pastor who has served churches in the PC(USA) and UCC. She is presently serving First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, IL. This is her sixth transitional position and she is a faculty member at the MALT site of the Transitional Ministry Education Network (TMEC).  She is passionate about church and about change. If we are not changing, we are dying!

When Our Screw Ups Are Met By God’s Grace

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Shavon Starling-Louis is one of our presenters. Learn more about her workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Shavon Starling-Louis

“Oh crap!” “I can’t believe I got myself into this situation. (…. Again.)” “I can’t do this!”

Those are the words that I hear from the bell tower of my mind when the reality of my f– ahem…. flub-ups hit me like a ton of bricks.

Here’s a truth about me.

I fail.

And when I do, I often feel like poop.

2014 communion tableI don’t often share this sentiment so bluntly with others, but there it is – in black and white no less. On a regular basis we as leaders of faith communities find ourselves lonely, embarrassed, confused, and suffering in bad head and spiritual spaces in light of our fragility and failures.

In the church (and the wider society), we have a stigma around failing.

In the PC(USA), we have a tendency to call leaders who are the best of the best. While this is generally considered a good thing, this way of thinking about leadership means we can lose the creative and spirit-led openness to new types of leaders and leadership. The “best of the best” often equates to the safest of the safe.

But the other problem is that we, as leaders, internalize the pressure to be the “best of the best.” Which means we feel a pressure to perform and assimilate to expected norms of what the best looks like, acts like, leads like.

(Sidenote: As a creative, young woman of color, the unspoken yet acclaimed “best of the best” in the PC(USA) rarely looks, acts, or leads anything like me, and that can feels crappy!)

We can lose or minimize the God-given unique combinations of interest, talents, and gifts that make us who we are because we aren’t the best in certain areas.

We can feel like imposters, failures, and frauds. Everything but the sons and daughters of God.

It’s a reality that a part of being growing creative people means that we will fail – especially when we try new things.

Unfortunately, the reality that we can strangely attempt to avoid or hide. And it’s a reality that can quickly turn from guilt to shame.

Thankfully, we have the theological terminology to name the reality that that “all fallen short.” Through the words and wisdom of our reformed tradition, we can name that are we are all guilty; we all fail. And we can confess in our words and actions that it is only by God’s grace that were are able to move forward as forgiven people.

But the stench of guilt and shame for things done and things left undone as we lead others has the ability to stick to us. Yet, as seen over and over, the stench often dissipates when allowed to come to air and light, love, and compassion.

And in the greater mysteries of God the very situations that once made us say “Crap!” are where we discover the grace and power of God in new and exciting ways.

I am so grateful that as the body of Christ, we are empowered to wade into any place of fear or anxiety compassionately together with hope.

You are invited to join me and my friend Glen Bell at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering for an open conversation about leading change, embracing failure, and naming the gifts of Holy Spirit that arise.


shavonShavon Starling-Louis is co-pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Glen Bell is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida. In spite of failures and falls (literally and figuratively), they are committed to developing their gifts in leading change with God’s help – but sure enough, they are as human as they come. Shavon and Glen’s workshop, “Leading Change: Epic Fails and Spirit Surprises“, is offered during workshop block 1 on Monday.

A New Hymnal and Change

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By James Renfrew

A discussion about a congregation’s hymnal becomes a good case study in openness to change vs. aversion to change.  When I arrived at my church in 2000 the book in the pew racks was Hymns for the Family of God, a very conservative Baptist-centered, and decidedly non-Presbyterian hymnal.  The hymnal was forty years old and had been in use at our church for at least thirty. There were no hymns relating to infant baptism, an unusually poor selection of Easter hymns, and only two Advent hymns.  The liturgical texts were also not very helpful in speaking to Presbyterian perspectives on scripture and faith.  And at least one third of the hymn selections used “washed in the blood” imagery.  While “washed in the blood” is authentic Biblical imagery, it is not an image that I generally choose to lift up Jesus Christ each Sunday in worship. So in choosing hymns for each Sunday I had to eliminate one third of the selections from consideration right off the bat.

Initially serving as a supply pastor at this church, I felt that recommending a hymnal change was probably not the best idea.  But after several years, through the wonders of modern polity, I became the called pastor.  Still, I hesitated to take the lead in suggesting a change.  I had heard many horror stories of pastors going down in flames for trying doing just that.  Yet I did make a decision to share – honestly – what I thought about our hymnal in a variety of one-on-one conversations with church leaders and members.  I did not advocate a new hymnal purchase, but simply pointed out the wide variety of limitations in the book we had.  Rarely did I say anything at a Session meeting about it.

When the new Glory to God hymnal was first publicized, not me but a member of Session brought it up for discussion.  It was very interesting to hear half of the elders raising some of the same points I had been raising about Hymns for the Family of God.  But, as expected, there were plenty of objections, mostly along the lines of “there’s nothing wrong with our hymnal”, “it’s what I’m used to,” and “we can’t afford a new one.”   These, of course, are the kinds of things said at nearly every discussion in a church that involves “change.”  The idea of acquiring a new hymnal raised a key question for us: “should we be looking backward or forward in our ministry?” A “next church” negotiates this kind of question by rephrasing the question to ask if our church is just for ourselves and people like ourselves, or is this Christ’s church for the people we haven’t met yet, like children, grand-children, new residents, or immigrants?  How can we embrace their stories, vocabularies, and needs in the songs that we sing?

Thankfully, elders were drawn to some new features in Glory to God:  lectionary-based hymn suggestions, worship rubrics that actually fit with our order of worship, brief historical notes about each hymn at the bottom of each page, chords for string accompaniment, a huge section of Advent hymns (separate from Christmas hymns), and even some hymns appropriate for infant baptism.  Fortunately, the groundwork had been laid in all of those one-on-one conversations, openness prevailed, and the decision was made to acquire 120 copies of the new hymnal, after making a special appeal to members and friends of the church to “buy a hymnal” at $15 each.  Glory to God!

A committee was formed to take the lead in the appeal (not the pastor!).  It was expected that there would be resistance, so each member of the committee addressed the congregation during worship in advance of the appeal letter.  Mary Ann, a musician, shared some of her excitement for an opportunity to learn new hymns.  Gwen outlined the practical aspects of how the appeal would be conducted.  Audrey began by saying, “I looked in the table of comments of the new hymnal and I didn’t see my favorite hymn.”  Then she said, “But I’m hoping I’ll find a new favorite hymn in the new hymnbook.”  Amen!  With that comment, I felt like our church got unstuck and was ready to move forward.  Sure enough, most of the funds came in.  When we were still about 15 books short, one elder pledged to put us over the top. Isn’t it amazing how one faithful insight can transform an entire congregation?  Glory to God!

When acquiring a new hymnal conciliatory people will often try to split the difference.  For example, in a previous church I served a 1970’s Reformed Church hymnal was acquired by donation from another church to replace the 1930’s Presbyterian Hymnal.  But several elders suggested that we keep the peace by putting the new and old hymnals in the pew racks side-by-side.  It sounded like a great idea because everybody gets to be happy.  However, this served to immediately undermine the new hymnal in that church from the start.  It gave those afraid of change a place to retreat to.  Sort of like trying to cross the Red Sea while keeping one foot firmly planted on shore!   When I left that church a few years later those new hymnals were all removed from the pews within a week and they went back to the 1930’s edition, even as the congregation continued in sharp decline.  That a more modern hymnal might better connect with an increasingly diverse neighborhood was not considered.  So when we purchased the Glory to God hymnals last year we made every effort to get the old hymnals out the door as soon as possible.  It was suggested that we give them as appreciative gifts to the families named in each book’s dedication plate, but it turned out that they were all the gift of only two families, and one had no immediate descendants in the area, so that only took care of six of the books!  Then I stood at the door at the end of each service and handed a copy to each departing worshiper. Finally, on Christmas Eve, I made an even more concerted effort to put one of the old hymnals in the hands of every guest.  No turning back now!  Glory to God!

Introducing a new hymnal requires careful planning.  First, we dedicated the new hymnal by praising the bold commitment of our members to the future. Second, I acknowledged that someday in the future this new hymnal, too, will become an old hymnal and be in need of replacement, and that it is good to see a church anticipating the future rather than hiding from it. Third, from the start we selected lots of familiar hymns from the new book to show that it wasn’t the “alien” that many thought it was.  Fourth, Glory to God has lots of familiar tunes with new words, so those became the easiest new songs to introduce.  Fifth, although our choir is only gathered for certain church seasons, we have made an effort to present new hymns through introits, string instrument solos, and anthems until they become more familiar for congregational singing.  Congregations with a more active choir can introduce new songs more easily than we have done.

Here’s one of the new songs we have discovered:  Hymn 292, “As the Wind Song.”  Mary Ann tried it at home on her hammered dulcimer and suggested it to me as a duet with my mandolin for a church service.  As I recall, it was our first deliberate choice of a new hymn from the new hymnal to share with the congregation.  The note at the bottom of the page gives a fascinating description of the song’s Chinese and Maori origin.  “As the wind song through the trees … making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world, as the rising of the yeast, as the wine at the feast, so it is with the Spirit of God”.  The hymn uses beautiful words and phrases, draws in Biblical images, embodies our desire to be a fresh and new, and invites all who hear it to be that “next church,” not just for ourselves but for many more.  Glory to God!

renfrewJames R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder

Pastor, Byron Presbyterian Church,

Byron NY

 

 

Discerning What’s NEXT in a Time of Transition

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Mark Davis

changeI currently exist in that happy little bubble called “the honeymoon” of a new call. I know that the joy, my apparent marvelousness, the crowds and the hope all carry the strain of false advertising, reminiscent of the hope that rises when looking at an Easter Sunday crowd. But, I honestly felt that – aside from a few unlovely encounters along the way –my first congregation and I were in something like a honeymoon phase the whole eighteen years I was with them. I tend to be a ‘rose-colored glasses’ sort of person, so maybe there was much more ‘trouble in the land’ than I ever presumed. But, I felt like there were two things I learned in my first call that I hope will help me in my second call: Joining the Team and Instituting Change.

By “joining the team” I am referring to one of my clergy pet peeves, so please bear with me. I despise when clergy speak about ourselves and our congregations as if ‘we’ are the only ones who really get Jesus while ‘they’ are all stuck in their ways and obstacle to what God is really trying to do among us. (It all starts with the dreadful ‘C&E Christians’ jokes.) Perhaps if that is how we comport ourselves vis-a-vis the congregations that we serve, then that is how each of us will act out. If we pretend that we are the voice crying out in the wilderness and our congregations are the brood of vipers gathered along the river; if we imagine that we are in the role of Jesus in this story while our congregations are the errant disciples, if we preach as if we are Paul and our congregations are the infighting Corinthians – then perhaps that is how we will all start to act in order to appear as good, biblical people. But, if we assume that Pentecost really did happen, a healthier perspective emerges: We – the congregation together with those who serve them – are a prophetic community, pointing toward a reign of God that sometimes puts us in direct conflict with the predominant values of our contextual communities. We are, by grace and giftedness, on the same team. Whatever resistance, hope, pettiness, glory, or fear that I see in the congregation I serve are akin to the same qualities that are in me. I see them because I know them. That’s why even my most ardent opinion about ‘them’ becomes a word about ‘us’ when I preach. It’s not faux humility. It’s truth.

By “instituting change” I am joining one of the most popular and one of the most despised of our current buzzwords quite deliberately. What I hope to ‘institutionalize,’ i.e. make a part of our routine expectation, is change itself. Frankly, I think admonitions against “change for the sake of change” are wrong. Even if a particular change ends up seeming contrived and a waste of time, the act of changing itself breeds openness to the creative God who is ever making all things new. Of course there are limits to what can and ought to be changed, of course there is discernment that is necessary, and of course the relationships behind our practices are tantamount. But, those are not typically the areas where conversations about change arise. They arise over the adiaphora, preferences, and conveniences – all of which are best kept when we subject them to change continually and deliberately. I want people coming to worship wondering, “What has the Worship Committee cooked up this time?” I want people whining, “But we did this last year!” And they will, once we’ve worked together to institutionalize change.


Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

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