The Landscape of Liturgy: Blessing of the Plants in Worship

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During September, Leanne Pearce Reed is curating a month of blog posts exploring stewardship of all creation. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Ashley Goff

(Editor’s Note: This writing first appeared on Ashley’s blog God of the Sparrow, where she writes on adventures with liturgy, yoga, urban farming, and being inspired by the Planet and its radical, creative earthly creatures. Check it out!)

Four years ago, Church of the Pilgrims started an urban garden with one raised bed. Now we have four raised beds, a root veggie garden, herb garden, large perennial bed, four beehives, and several composts. The produce grown from the garden goes to creating meals for Open Table, our Sunday lunch for hungry neighbors.

plant communion
Table. Font. Cups. Plants.

We’ve done a lot of work in these past four years in incorporating the garden into life at Pilgrims, particularly our liturgical life.

Several weeks ago, we had our spring planting day after worship. Before we plunked everything into the soil, we blessed and honored the plants in worship. How to bless the plants came out of a brainstorming session with Jess Fisher and Dana Olson, our two interns.

I preached on the Emmaus Road, focusing on “recognition” and how breaking of bread (the non-human) and community (human) push us to recognize the Holy One. I’d give this sermon a B, mostly because I was focused on communion that followed.

As part of the invitation to the table, I had people share their hopes and dreams for what they want to recognize in this Eastertide season. I stood next to the font which was in front of our table—everything surrounded by the plants we would soon plant.

Plants growing out of font and table.
Plants growing out of font and table.

We had a lime tree, olive tree, creeping thyme, tomatoes, eggplants, sunflowers, basil, cabbage, peppers, and native plants. These plants were grown by non-Monsanto seeds by Pilgrims or purchased at a farmers market from a local farm.

During Pilgrims baptismal liturgy, we share hopes and dreams for the person being baptized. Someone shares a hope and dream, then they take the pitcher and pour water into the font.

We did something similar with our “recognitions.”

I had planned to have people call out what they hope to recognize/pay attention to within themselves, Pilgrims and the planet in their pews with me pouring into the font.  Jeanne Mayer, a long time member at Pilgrims, was the first one to share. She came up, grabbed the pitcher out of my hand, shared in front of  everyone. This is the pattern in our baptism. Not sure what I was thinking…me holding the pitcher for everyone. Thankfully Jeanne pushed me out of the way.

One-by-one 10+ people shared. The recognitions focused on growth, perspective, expansiveness, and community.

Our intern, Jess Fisher, arranges the scene.
Our intern, Jess Fisher, arranges the scene.

People were then invited to come forward to our open table, singing “Come to the table of Grace”, and take a little communion cup, dip it into the font with the water full of hopes, and water the plants.

As we gathered around the table, we prayed, shared our hopes and dreams for the plants, and continued with an improv Prayer of Great Thanksgiving.

After worship, 15 of us went to our garden and planted our hopes and dreams.


Ashley Goff is a pastor at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC and regular blogger at God of the Sparrow.

The Landscape of Urban Farming: I’ve Got a Garden Coach!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During September, Leanne Pearce Reed is curating a month of blog posts exploring stewardship of all creation. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Ashley Goff

(Editor’s Note: This writing first appeared on Ashley’s blog God of the Sparrow, where she writes on adventures with liturgy, yoga, urban farming, and being inspired by the Planet and its radical, creative earthly creatures. Check it out!)

After 5  years of urban farming at Church of the Pilgrims and at my own homestead, I realized I had hit the limits of my knowledge with urban farming, particularly with soil science, companion planting, and pesticides.

Most of my knowledge on farming has come from swapping stories with other garden folks and doing some reading. But it’s hard for me to retain what I read on farming unless I am putting it into practice right in that very moment.

During the summer, my Facebook newsfeed led me to this organization: Love and Carrots.

Love and Carrots was started by Meredith Shepherd and believes this:

We at Love & Carrots believe the local food movement is a critical catalyst in environmental activism. In the United States the potential for impact by way of everyday choices is immense, yet after decades of consumerism-as-champion, our culture does not easily lend itself widespread change through daily choices. We believe food is a good start. Choosing what to eat is one of the easiest ways to be a proactive environmental steward, and eating locally is the simplest solution with the most impact so far. Urban Agriculture is the local food movement at its best and tackles a multifaceted problem. It is food production right at the site of high level consumption, it is greening spaces, it is education, its zero food miles, and its the healthy alternative.

Love and Carrots offers a coaching program—a Love and Carrots farmer comes out twice a month to your garden for garden maintenance + educate you on life in the garden.


Emailed. Met. Set-up a schedule.

Morgan, on the right, and Emily, our intern, in Pilgrims Sacred Greens garden.

Morgan, on the right, and Emily, former Pilgrims intern, in Pilgrims Sacred Greens garden.

I now have a garden coach—Morgan.

Twice a month, Morgan comes to Pilgrims  and we farm together. Plus I get to ask Morgan a bazillion questions about soil, pesticides, harvesting….whatever…..

Pilgrims garden was ready to be taken to the next level—not as in put in 5 more raised beds—but just in the intricacies of farming with what, when, and how to plant. There is so much to farming that my mind had been swirling with information, not sure how to get organized with a plan on such amazing details like what to do with tomato blight, what veggies can be planted next to each other, and what the hell to do with the stupid insects that come and terrorize the plants?

Morgan has taught me to mix-up what’s planted in one raised bed. For example: planting bok choy, mustard greens, and spinach together. These veggies are from the same family and the variety of plants in the bed confuses bugs that can annihilate the greens. This type of growing is practical and creative—I have to think through the strategy of how to create growth. It also creates beauty with the various textures and colors of the veggie leaves.  Mono-planting just isn’t effective. Diversity in planting increases potential for robust growth and beauty.  Having Morgan as a coach has pushed me to get out of my already-within-5-years systems of farming. Morgan has pushed open my ways and patterns to create a more beautiful Eden.

Pilgrims garden is ready for the next level, and so I am with urban farming.

I love the feeling of hitting my threshold of knowledge and experience, pulling in whatever resources needed to take me to the next level. A garden is an ever expanding, dynamic, life-giving place. I love watching lettuce grow and be shared with hungry people. I also love that the energy of the garden works within my own interior self—that I, too, need to go to the next level in order to work with the natural processes of life that are there for the taking.

Change Rooted in Relationships

By Ashley Goff

children_youth_1Why do the same people do everything around here? Why do I feel burned out? Where are all the new people? Where can we find people to do all this work? Who can we get someone to fill “x” position?

I heard these questions a lot when I arrived on the scene at Church of the Pilgrims in 1999.

We were living in a “this-is-sucking-the-life-out-of-us-culture.” People were compartmentalized into committees, with tasks and identities cementing them into an endless cycle of administrative anxiety rather than relationships and community building.

Pilgrims became aware of this dynamic, acted upon this realization, and in a prophetic sweep blew apart the committee structure to make way for a more fluid, open, organic way that was grounded in process rather than mind-numbing bureaucracy.

When Jeff Krehbiel arrived, he introduced community organizing and the foundational organizing tool—the relational meeting.

Over time, with our process-oriented structure, we’ve shifted into a “culture of possibility” with the relational, 1-on-1 meetings.

What is a 1-on-1 meeting?

  • A 30-60 minute meeting of face-to-face conversation with another person
  • A conversation about what the person’s passions, hopes, and dreams.
  • An opportunity to go outside the bounds of traditional congregational meetings that usually have an “ask” at the end.
  • A way of creating space for new ideas and possibilities.
  • A way of identifying new leaders with the ability to create change.

A 1-on-1 meeting is not:

  • A chance to find someone to fit into long-standing tasks and preconceived agenda.
  • Therapy or pastoral counseling.
  • An intellectual conversation about politics and head-trippin’ theology.
  • An interview of non-stop questions and putting someone in the “hot seat.”

What Happens During a 1-on-1 meeting?

  • “Why” is woven throughout the conversation.
  • The person who initiated the 1-on-1 structures the beginning and end. The middle part is improvisation based on the story of the particular person.
  • Risks are taken to go deeper into one or two things about the person’s story, especially when the person says something like, “I thought about being a physicist but became a personal chef.” Huh. I wonder what that transition is about.
  • Have a conversation! Share about yourself in the back-and-forth.
  • Close by asking who else you should meet with.

Organizing in the Flesh:

When do I experience organizing in the flesh? What difference do these meetings make? What does a “culture of possibility” look like at Pilgrims?

I try to do relational meetings at least twice a month. I can feel it when my calendar runs low on these meetings. I feel more rooted in myself and my work when I am consistent with this discipline of organizing. When I do a 1-on-1 with someone new at Pilgrims the congregation feels even more alive. When I do a 1-on-1 with someone who has been at Pilgrims for 30 years, I cherish their story and commitment to this place with more fervor.

Several weeks ago, Hannah Webster, our Elder for Hospitality and Evangelism, led a meeting to organize for the annual Capital LBGTQ Pride parade in June. Neither I nor Jeff was at the meeting. I ran into Hannah at the conclusion of her gathering and asked how it went.

Hannah’s reply, “great, we are going to make our festival booth more “like us” this year. Meaning, they want our booth at the Pride Festival to be more participatory and experiential. That means handing out essential oils made from honey and herb from Pilgrims urban garden and getting a photo booth.

Eight people showed up to this meeting because Hannah had done the relational work. Long-time members, new members and non-members were at the meeting. Hannah led the meeting, allowing space for free flowing ideas to erupt. Hannah didn’t control the meeting. She let the relationships in the meeting drive the vision for Pride. The group realized our booth needed to fit into our “culture of possibility” with participatory, relational experiences.

Change is happening all the time in our permission-giving space from creativity in worship, how we run meetings, who leads the meetings, and how new ideas are embraced and rise-up. Leaders at Pilgrims are cultivated through passion and interests, rather than inserting folks into long-standing, nostalgia based “to-do” lists and “this is what we’ve always done” repetitious activity.

We know names and stories. We know how to make our culture intentional. We appreciate each other and know that we are in this Jesus movement together. We take risks. We trust each other. We know we have something to offer to those who walk through our door—it’s a Story of transformation and change rooted in relationships.

worship3Ashley Goff is Associate Pastor at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC. She blogs at God of the Sparrow.

Worship: Style vs. Substance

by Jeff Krehbiel

Among my Presbyterian colleagues, several articles have been making the rounds this summer about millennials and the church. The most popular was by the evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans, published in the CNN Belief blog, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church.”

Here’s the money quote:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance… You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, posted an equally popular post on Patheos titled “Why traditional churches should stick with traditional worship.” He writes about skipping his usual mega-church one Sunday for a smaller, more traditional church closer to home, and being put off by their attempt at being “contemporary.” He concludes:

“When traditional churches try to be contemporary it usually comes across as forced, stilted or artificial. This dissonance jerks people back into the mundane world. Worshippers focus on the distraction instead of the Lord. So here’s my advice to every church: be who you are. Do what you do well – and do it over and over.”

What Evans and Murrow write, of course, is sound advice. All people, regardless of their age, value authenticity over pretense, substance over style. Here’s my worry:  What we are really thinking when we read these articles is “Whew! Thank God I don’t need to worry any long about making any changes in worship. Now we can go back to focusing on the things that really matter and leave worship alone.”

Change Without Conflict?

My colleague Molly Douthett, pastor of Furnace Mountain Presbyterian Church, posted this enigmatic little entry on Facebook the other day:

Two Myths:
We can grow without changing.
We can change without conflict.

That, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the matter. As conflict-averse people we want to reach new people without conflict, so we hope against hope that we can grow without having to change anything about how we do church.

Style and Substance

Our experience at Church of the Pilgrims over the past thirteen years, as our average age has gradually shifted from over 65 to less than 45, with Sunday worship peopled by a lot of twenty and thirty-somethings, is that style and substance are not so easily separated. Not only has the participation of young adults in worship been transforming for them, it has changed who we are as a community of faith.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received as a young pastor came from former moderator John Fife, long-time pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. At an urban ministry conference following his moderatorial year, he spoke about the lessons he learned in leading Southside into deeper engagement with its changing local community. He said that no matter what new demographic you are trying to reach (a different age, race, gender, ethnicity, whathaveyou), when people come to worship they want to see their own people in leadership and hear their own sound.

In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways (“You’re in my pew!”), we often communicate to newcomers that this is a place for us, but not a place for you. If the only ones required to change in bringing newcomers into the church are the newcomers themselves, we have a problem. Brian McClaren has often observed that there are scores of disaffected evangelicals who would easily find a theological home among Presbyterian and other mainline Christians congregations, but those congregations are often not experienced as hospitable places to those outside their fold. The message is often this: This is how we do things. If you are going to fit in here, it’s you who has to do the fitting.

Experiments in Wiki-Church

Howard Hanger, founder of the Jubilee! Community in Asheville persuaded me long ago that the big divide in worship is not between traditional and contemporary, but between passive and participatory. We learn in seminary that “liturgy” is the “work of the people,” but too often it is primarily the work of the pastor’s word processor. More recently, Landon Whittsit in his book Open Source Church, has suggested that in our Wikipedia culture, young adults increasingly expect to help create the experiences of which they are a part.

At Church of the Pilgrims, that begins in worship planning, where we invite a diverse group of worshipers to help us imagine worship together, including newcomers to our community who are not yet members. Then, in our planning, we make sure that worship provides meaningful opportunities to participate in ways that involve more than standing up to sing a hymn or sitting down to read a unison prayer printed in the bulletin.

Transformation and Our Comfort Zone

I love what Corey Widmer wrote in Presbyterian Outlook, that in his culturally diverse congregation in inner city Richmond, they have concluded that no one should be happy in worship more than 75% of the time, because if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed. Too often, the only ones worshiping outside their comfort zone are those who are new.

What if we began to conceive of worship as a place where transformation takes place, not just for newcomers but for everyone? What if personal and corporate transformation were at the heart of congregational life? When everyone finds themselves in that liminal space, we all enter worship on the same vulnerable footing. A few months ago, MaryAnn McKibben Dana shared this wonderful little diagram on her blog:

 where the magic

Worship that is EPIC

There is no cookie-cutter approach to creating transforming worship. However, we have found this simple rubric from Leonard Sweet to be helpful in our worship planning. He suggests that worship for postmodern people should be EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-Driven, and Connectional. So when we plan worship we talk about what we want the overall experience to be like, and how we can shape worship in a way that engages all of the senses (and not just worship from the neck up). We look for ways that worshipers can participate in meaningful ways. (For rich examples of participatory worship, Theresa Cho, co-pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian in San Francisco, is the master of interactive prayer stations.) Then we ask ourselves if there is a central image that can help ground the service and provide a focal point. Finally, we focus on what is happening in the service that will help worshipers connect with those who are around them.

This isn’t about traditional vs. contemporary, it’s about creating ancient-future patterns that engage in richer ways. (What exactly is contemporary, anyway? Is a new hymn contemporary? Or a praise chorus written in the ‘90’s? Where exactly does a Taizé chant fit in that traditional-contemporary schema? ) So, for example, at Church of the Pilgrims we often begin worship with short songs from Iona, not because they are new, but because singing a cappella in harmony creates community in powerful ways. I would also note that the sacraments, rightly celebrated, are an EPIC experience—there is bread and wine, plate and pitcher; there is taking, breaking, pouring, tasting; and most importantly, there is sharing. It’s all there.

For a recent example at creating worship that is transforming and EPIC, see this.

Jeff1_8x10Jeff Krehbiel is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, where he has served since 2000. He is a member of the NEXT Church advisory board, and a coach in NEXT’s Paracletos project. 

5 Questions with Ashley Goff

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 … 

Ashley Goff is Minister for Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) and ordained in the United Church of Christ. Ashley graduated from Union Theological Seminary in NYC where she fell in love with the art of liturgy.  She lives with deep gratitude for several communities which have formed her along the way: Denison University, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Open Door Community, and Rikers Island NYC Jail. Ashley also finds life in Springsteen music, beekeeping, urban farming, vinyasa yoga, and her three kids and loveable spouse.

1.Tell us about your ministry context

I am Minister for Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims, a More Light, urban, progressive, “we-drink-beer-during-Bible-study-at-the-bar-across-the-street” PCUSA congregation in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. I have been at Pilgrims 14 years and ordained in the United Church of Christ. When I arrived at Pilgrims in 1999, right out of Union Seminary in NYC, the congregation was at rock bottom in every way possible. Now, we have transformed ourselves into a lively, mutli-age/gender/race/denominational-history congregation. We thrive on innovative worship, community organizing, urban gardening, Biblical stories, and sharing food with hungry people.

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

At Pilgrims, I experience a community that is and becoming an innovative, creative, collective body when we worship together, particularly when we take ancient practices and make them new to us. We are becoming when we roast marshmallows before a winter solstice service, walk in meditation before communion, learn new songs together, anoint each other after sharing the bread, and baptize with a thunderous voice that peace and justice are the Ways of God. We are becoming when I experience liturgy at Pilgrims and realize someone could see what we did in two ways: “what you did was profoundly Christian or barely Christian.” When we risk and take ourselves to an edge for the sake of Jesus we are becoming.

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

My passion is this creative edge for liturgy that creates space for us to experience the transformative nature of the Spirit. I have been most influenced by the ancient liturgical expressions of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia, James Chapel at Union Seminary in NYC, and St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. These communities transformed me through their improvisational, liturgical ways, opening us space for God to be known to me. I’m passionate about carrying the methods of these communities into my work. I’m passionate how the revolutionary methods of the arts hold the most power for me in planning liturgy. I’m passionate about the intersection of urban gardening, liturgy, sharing food and how an Earth-Honoring faith pushes Pilgrims to tether itself to God whose unrelenting imperative is justice.

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

I’m looking forward to sharing Pilgrims story of liturgy and being with people, especially Laura Cunningham, who is a dear friend and whom I don’t get to see very often.

5. Describe NEXT in seven words or less.

Collective. Imagination. Newness. Imperative. Must. Yes. Innovation.