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Without Training Wheels

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 Jessie Light

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. The next two posts are from two people on the cusp of this transition, reflecting on their time in seminary and sharing their hopes for their future ministry.

The slightly cooler September air whips through my ponytail as I gain speed, pedaling confidently down the quiet street. A bit awkward on the bike, I make a clunky gear change that slows me down a bit and causes the tires to wobble. Looking down, I suddenly realize that my training wheels – those helpful crutches I had depended on for months, even years – have been removed! Even more surprising, I glance behind my shoulder and realize that I am completely alone on the road, miles away from home. I slow to a stop to breathe for a few minutes and get my bearings.

This is the embodiment of my first three weeks of ministry. And this reflection is the slowing, the stopping to breathe, the trying-to-get-my-bearings.

In many ways, seminary was the best experience of my life thus far. I spent the last three years profoundly reflecting on what Christianity means in the world today, creating some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve ever had, and intentionally cultivating my gifts for ministry. I’ve been biking down this road for awhile now – writing papers, receiving feedback, going to counseling, working in congregations, preaching and leading worship, completing CPE, winding my way through the ordination process. When I graduated in May, I felt a healthy sense of accomplishment; I felt capable and confident, eager to begin my call.

I’m not even sure when the training wheels came off. Were they unscrewed in the middle of my summer internship after I preached my fifth consecutive sermon? Perhaps they were left in the dust when I sat with an anxious and grieving family at the children’s hospital. Regardless, I didn’t notice their absence until this week, until I asked myself for the umpteenth time, “am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I have the dream “first call.” As the Monie Pastoral Resident at Preston Hollow Presbyterian, I am responsible for creating and coordinating a brand new worship service on Sunday evenings, for writing all of the church’s liturgy, for teaching a well-established bible study, and for exploring the many other ministry areas of the church over the course of two years. I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, and to work alongside so many people that I admire and respect.

And still, every day so far, I’ve looked around my still unsettled office asked myself, “am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” Of course I’m attending scheduled meetings; acquainting myself with the building, staff, and congregation; leading in worship; meeting deadlines; and so on. I feel equipped to fulfill these responsibilities, and for that, I am grateful.

What has been completely unanticipated, and somewhat terrifying, is knowing that I am capable and called, and still feeling like I’m faking it.

Many people in the last few years have reflected on the “imposter syndrome,” the feeling of self-doubt and fear that leads to asking the question, “what if they find out that I’m just faking it? What if they realize what a fraud I really am?” I have realized that I might be especially prone to imposter syndrome as an Enneagram Type 3 (The Achiever) because I am both goal oriented and image-conscious. Certainly there have been moments this month where I have felt confident in myself, but often, they have been overshadowed by this syndrome, this tendency to downplay what I am doing

So here I am, feeling like I’m faking it, all the while being introduced to people as “the newest pastor here at Preston Hollow!” Here I am, finally realizing my own grief that seminary – an incredible chapter of my life – is over, all the while forming a beautiful new community here in Dallas. Here I am, repeatedly asking myself an unhelpful question, all the while doing the work of ministry, the work God is calling me to do.

And as I look down toward the tires of my well-loved bicycle, I realize my knees are shaking but my muscles are strong. Maybe it’s time to trust myself a little more, to trust the training I’ve received and to recognize that I’ve been biking without my training wheels for a long time. As I start to pedal again, I look forward once more, and enjoy the breeze.


Jessie Light completed her Master of Divinity at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in May 2017, and is currently serving as the Monie Pastoral Resident at Preston Hollow Presbyterian in Dallas, TX. Jessie is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University. Prior to serving at PHPC, Jessie worked in various capacities at Village Presbyterian Church (Prairie Village, KS), University Presbyterian Church (Austin, TX), and North Decatur Presbyterian Church (Decatur, GA). Jessie serves on the Executive Board of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and finds joy in baking sourdough bread, writing poetry, and being outside in God’s good creation.

A Time and Place Set Apart

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 Brandi Casto-Waters

Outside the Sally Jones Pottery Studio in Montreat, NC, there is a sign that says, “Encountering God through relationships, renewal, recreation, and rest.” As a PC(USA) Pastor, I have had that experience in Montreat more times than I can count. During times of grief, conflict, peace, and great joy, Montreat has been for me, as I pray for you, “a place set apart.”

Several years ago at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago I was flipping through the conference program and the page for Trent@Montreat caught my attention. Not only did it include the word Montreat in the title, but it promised to be a “different kind of conference” with tracks related to worship and music, Christian education, pastoral care, preaching, youth, mission, and more. So often as church leaders, we go off to different conferences or continuing education events related to our specific interests or areas of service. I love the Festival of Homiletics. Our church educator is a faithful participant in APCE. The director of music looks forward to Worship and Music at Montreat all year long. The list goes on. Trent@Montreat seemed to offer something for everyone.

At our next staff meeting, we talked about it, registered, and for the first time in the history of First Presbyterian Church, Greer, the church staff went to a continuing education event together. Rather than planning and carrying out all the details related to worship, we worshipped together. Rather than managing the volunteers and ordering the food for the meal, we ate together. Rather than remembering all the materials and arranging the classrooms, we were students together.

It is a little crazy to consider that although we had worked together in the church for ten years, we had not once all sat in the same pew to sing, pray, and hear the word of the Lord proclaimed together.

During the day we all went to our individual tracks. I went to the preaching workshop entitled, “The Relentless Return of Sunday.” The director of music went to the music and worship workshop led by Eric Wall and Theresa Cho. The church administrator and associate pastor spent their time with Pete and Margaret Peery discussing the joys and challenges of pastoral care. The list goes on.

I realize the thought of the entire church staff leaving town at once might make some people nervous but it was good for us and it was good for the church. Elders were happy to offer congregational care and volunteers were glad to tend to building while we were away.

Each member of our staff learned something different through our experience. We all agreed that the workshops were meaningful, the worship was creative, and the leadership was top-notch. Most importantly, we were all grateful to be together in a time and place set apart for encountering God through relationships, renewal, recreation, and rest. Your context may different than ours. You may be a solo pastor, or chaplain, or church professional serving in a non-profit, but the thing about Trent@Montreat is that it is a different kind of conference, so it could be exactly right for you too.


Brandi Casto-Waters has served First Presbyterian Church, Greer, since December of 2006. She received a Bachelor of Science in Religion and Sociology from Presbyterian College, a Master of Divinity from Columbia Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Seminary. She is married to Rev. Andy Casto-Waters. They have two children, Ella and Lucy.

Not Alone

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 Felipe Martinez

A special opportunity is coming to Montreat Conference Center April 16-19, 2018, where new pastors will gather for training, worship and fellowship as they embark on the journey of pastoral ministry. The event, Trent@Montreat, is a partnership between the Trent Fund of Second Presbyterian Church, Roanoke, Virginia; Union Presbyterian Seminary; Montreat Conference Center; and NEXT Church.

The first few years of ministry represent an important time in the development of a new minister as pastor, and in the life of a congregation excited about its recently ordained leader. A training like Trent@Montreat comes at the right time to help new pastors with tools, perspective, a community of fellow travelers, and needed time away for reflection. Conference organizers are offering several learning tracks, and they invited me to teach a track which I have entitled “On Your Own But Not Alone – Solo Pastoring.” Other tracks are: Mission, Preaching, Education, Worship, Staff/Team Development, Leadership in Conflict, Strategic Planning, Pastoral Care, Youth, Young Adults and Exegeting Your Community.

I remember my first church as a solo pastor. I turned 26 years old the day my wife Tracy and I moved into the manse at the First Presbyterian Church in St. Anne, Illinois. I was fresh out of seminary in Chicago going to a small town of 1,200 people for my first call as a pastor. To say I was in culture shock and wet behind the ears does not begin to convey the challenge I had ahead of me. But fortunately, the members of that congregation were gracious, patient, and willing to enter into relationship with that young city-dweller whom God had called to be their pastor. They nurtured my pastoral instincts, helped shape my preaching, and partnered with me as we ministered together. I like to tell people McCormick Theological Seminary trained me, but that St. Anne Church made me the pastor I am.

Felipe and another cohort he’s a part of: the NEXT Church strategy team.

A conference like Trent@Montreat, with its many tracks to choose from, gives new pastors an opportunity to go contextualize their seminary education, and wrap their heads around the on-the-job training which emerges as ministry takes place in church and community. When I started in pastoral ministry, I had mentors and teachers who helped me as I grew into the role (I was a part of a weekly lectionary group with seasoned preachers and I participated in the Synod of Lincoln Trails three-year support program for new pastors). As I celebrate the silver anniversary of my ordination, I am now in a position to encourage and challenge new pastors, as well as lift up the wisdom and unique perspective they each bring to ministry.

I can’t tell the new pastors at the conference to go to a church like First Presbyterian in St. Anne. What I can tell them is that they can seek opportunities for partnership in their ministry context. I’d warn them against doing everything themselves (solo pastor does not mean they’re alone!). I’d remind them to focus on God’s abundance, and connect with the strengths and passion of their congregation members. I would challenge them to ponder what is at the center of their pastoral identity (do they feel like a pastor, teacher, chaplain, community organizer, etc.?). What I won’t have a chance to do is to speak with the churches where those new pastors are serving. If I could, I would invite them to see their pastor as a leader and partner in ministry. I would also encourage them to keep a sense of anticipation about whatever new thing God is doing in them and through them, because God is always doing a new thing, and we’ll spot it if we are willing to perceive it.


Felipe N. Martinez has been a solo pastor of a small and a medium sized congregation, as well as an Associate Executive Presbyter and Interim Executive Presbyter. He is currently the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

Peace, Unity, and Purity Redux: What Theological Diversity Might Look Like Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

— W-4.4003 g. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

The year 2001 seems like a very long time ago in so many ways. George W. Bush was president. The top five TV shows were Friends, CSI, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Law and Order. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. And there were, of course, the horrific events of September 11, with continuing implications and trajectories.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a different enterprise then as well. Larger, for one thing. More members and more congregations. (That’s an observation, not a commentary!) It’s much too soon for a historical analysis of that moment, but we can certainly remember it as a time of conflict and contention. We sparred in church courts and on the floors of presbyteries and General Assemblies about theological matters and their polity implications. The issues were twofold: 1. our Christology – our thinking about Jesus Christ; and 2. our understanding of human sexuality as it related to our ordination practices. In each issue were embedded biblical arguments, theological arguments, polity arguments, and views of culture and power.

In the midst of a particularly fractious moment, the 213th General Assembly called for the establishment of a theological task force. Its charge:

“The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

“The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

I was privileged to serve on that task force, serving then as one of its younger members, a local church pastor with an interest in church history, and one who had been active in the ordination debate while seeking to build bridges with those who disagreed. Serving on the task force remains a highlight of my ministry, both for the relationships forged and the work we did.

Both our process and our product offered, I hope, something for the church at that point and as it moved forward. People still comment to me very positively about our work. I am grateful for that. We took relationship building seriously. We prayed and worshiped together continually. We engaged in extensive Bible study. We discerned – holy cow did we discern! All of that mattered greatly. (In fact, when people point to our experience, I remind them that any group can do that – pray, worship, study, and, in fact, it’s easier to do in geographic proximity over a period of time than flying to Dallas every so often!)

We produced a report – adopted unanimously – that recommended several ways for congregations and presbyteries to renew their covenantal partnerships. All of those were widely embraced. We also recommended a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. In shorthand that was called “local option,” but it really sought to reaffirm the duties of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination stands in particular settings. I like to remember that there were members of the theological task force supportive of and opposed to new ordination practices, yet all of us supported that recommendation. It passed as well at the 2006 G.A., but with a divided house following rigorous debate. (Here’s our report.)

It is now sixteen years after our work began and eleven years since we issued our final report. Much has changed. Ordination and now marriage seem to be settled matters. The most recent General Assembly offered very little debate on the issues around which the task force gathered. Many congregations have departed our denominational family with perhaps more in the pipeline. The culture is at a different place as well, though what had felt like a consensus also feels like it is perched on an uneven surface.

Part of our work as task force members was to itinerate across the denomination, visiting presbyteries, synods and congregations, and sharing our report. It was a great privilege and a wonderful learning opportunity. People of all stripes showed up, and regardless of what they felt about the report, and in particular recommendation #5. I could tell how much passion and energy and love they had for their church. That hasn’t changed, even though the forms and faces have.

I remember one visit in a particular, which pivots to the point of this blog entry. It was in a neighboring presbytery from where I live, so I could make the drive and back in one day. After my presentation and an extensive Q and A period, a minister approached me, in his 40’s or so. He expressed appreciation for my presence and for the work of the task force. Then he said this to me: “You know, I am a conservative pastor serving in a conservative congregation in a largely progressive presbytery. I know I will be on the losing side of most votes we take. I can live with that. What I really want to know is whether there is a place for me in this presbytery, and is there a place for my congregation?”

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us?

I told him that I certainly hope so, that our report sought to make space for those who disagree. But I also acknowledged that no report, no Book of Order provision, could guarantee that deeper response. Only the quality of relationships and the spirit with which our polity is engaged in any one context can establish that place, can make that space.

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us? Those questions abide.

We are in a very different place as a church and as a culture, very different in so many ways. I pray, in our congregations and in our presbyteries, that we can find a place for those who disagree with us on important theological matters. “Agreeing to disagree” is the shorthand way of affirming a core Presbyterian principle, engrossed even in our ordination vows. How we do that in congregations and how we do that in presbyteries, in all of our relationships as Presbyterian followers of Jesus – in 2017 and beyond – will go a very long way to ensuring our health and vitality and position us for renewal and service.

Eleven years ago, the Theological Task Force concluded its report with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”

That affirmation makes theological diversity as a manifestation of unity not just a good idea, but a confessional mandate. How we make it visible and real in 2017 is a challenge whose daunting nature is only surpassed by the graceful possibility of the opportunity.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Unity Found at the Lord’s Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Douglas Brouwer

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Gladly – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.


Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich who previously served churches in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. Doug received his undergraduate training from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

Telling Stories That Matter

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 Shawna Bowman

Three years ago my congregation began the process of considering what God was calling us to next. Several years had passed since we had been through a major transformation: merging two congregations, closing and selling buildings, saying goodbye to faithful leaders and oversized structures, and starting a new congregation called Friendship Presbyterian Church. In the years since this new beginning, Friendship had fostered a deep sense of community, a thirst for justice, and an attitude of experimentation. Having been through such a radical transition, our capacity for risk was high and our faith that God would continue to guide us was strong.

We knew we needed to think about big questions like space and location as it related to our vision for a deeper connection to the communities we serve and the organizations we partner with. So we hired a consultant. And she came. And the first question she asked my people was: why do you come here?

Oh my goodness, their answers made my heart so happy. They said they came because this is where they are fed. They told stories about being stretched and engaged and invited to participate. They told stories about how they can be their whole selves here, about getting their hands dirty doing good work, about how this space has been a transformative one where they’ve experienced healing and God in new ways. Stories about how this is where they’ve begun to articulate a faith that makes sense, that holds up in the midst of conflict, fear, and doubt. Stories about how they can bring their family, no matter their needs, and feel welcome.

The consultant said, “Wow, you’ve got an amazing thing going here. Outside of these walls, who do you tell these stories to?”

And my people looked at one another, and they looked at the consultant and they said, “No one.”

My people were experiencing enriching worship, transformative conversations about their faith, and growth in their hunger for justice in the world but they did not have the words to articulate this outside the walls of our community. They did not have practice telling stories about their lives that connected to their faith. They did not know where to begin when it came to talking about matters of faith and their spiritual life because we don’t tell stories like that in the kiddo drop off at school or around the break table at work. We don’t often hear or tell stories about how God is working in our lives, softening our hearts or healing old wounds or whispering in our ears because these are brave and vulnerable and mystical stories and we’re way more comfortable with conversations about the weather than risking these revealing stories with friends and strangers.

If we only tell these stories inside our worship spaces and never outside, how can we expect to deepen our relationships with our neighbors? How can we expect to know and be known by organizations we hope to partner with? How can we share the transformative power of our little community if we don’t tell our stories?

And so we began to practice. We began by learning the art of storytelling, and we began to practice on one another in worship. During a series on “Meals With Jesus.” we told stories about our own kitchen tables. We brought place settings and table cloths from our homes and set the communion table each week and told stories about family meals, awkward meals, and last meals. We told stories about gifts during Advent and stories about letting go during Lent.

We also began to tell stories at session meetings that would inform our decision making and mission priorities. When we decide to try new forms of worship, we added a storytelling component to our evaluation process. Instead of simply asking folks what they liked and didn’t like after trying new forms of worship, we gathered together as community and we told stories. We told stories about what we stretched us and what challenged us, about parts of worship that gave us comfort and where we found ourselves disconnected. Hearing one another’s stories deepened our compassion and understanding for one another. It changed worship into the communal experience it’s meant to be, rather than a commodity for each individual.

When we came together to work on the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, we wanted to infuse the process with storytelling. We know we can collect all the data we want, but if we don’t know how to make sense of it or tell the stories of what it means, of how our ministries and mission are having impact, then the data doesn’t do us very much good. As you consider the stories that shape your communities and the lives of your participants you might ask these questions:

What are the stories that get told most often about your community?

Are they true? Are they encouraging or discouraging?

Who gets to tell them?

What are our stories of risk and failure?

What are our stories of resilience and our stories of change and transformation?

Many of our communities need practice in telling stories that matter. The good news is that many of us are hungry to hear and tell stories. We just need practice. Our Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry will include a storytelling process and examples from congregations. Our hope is that you will uncover these stories in your communities and that they will help shape your mission and vision. Even more importantly, we hope these stories will feed you when you’re in the midst of change and transformation.


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago and co-founder of Creation Lab, an art collective and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality and prophetic imagination. 

The Surprising Benefit of 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 Casey Thompson

Once in first grade, my teacher asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we were older. Cindy said a fireman; Mark answered a teacher; Stephanie wanted to be a princess (bless her heart, it seems more unlikely the older we get). Then our teacher turned to me, “Casey, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

I said, “I’d like to spend my life propping up an institution on life support, squeezing out the last bits of life from it so that it can continue to over-serve the wealthy and under-serve the poor. In short, Ms. Cunningham, I’d like to be a pastor!”

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Perhaps you were as well. It would explain why the church of Jesus Christ seems to have a problem with cynicism now. Cynicism happens when our hopefulness deflates, and it seems to me much of the church’s hopefulness has deflated. We’re wondering how to do ministry when the tested, traditional methods don’t work anymore — or when those methods actively make things worse. We’re wondering how to keep this marvelous institution alive that introduced us to the very thing we love most in life. As it gets harder to do, we get more cynical.

I too am prone to cynicism, but I love pastors (most of us) and elders (more of you) and congregants (nearly all of them). I don’t want the church to lose hope.

So I agreed to try and help as I could. I joined the Cultivating Ministry team. We were called together to consider new ways of evaluating ministry, ways that considered numbers and storytelling, ways forward focused on theology and new learnings.

What I have discovered in my time working with this group is that there is an unexpected benefit to evaluation. Evaluation is not just a way to gauge the effectiveness of a ministry so that it might be tweaked toward perfection. Evaluation actually subverts the forms of our ministry. It actually returns us to the theological question at the heart of vocation, a question so fundamental that we start asking first graders so they’ll have enough practice answering it by the time it becomes pressing for them: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” How do you want to spend your time?

My genuine answer is that I want to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want people to encounter the gentle spirit that canopies the world, the shelter that is also the source of our being, and the incarnation of that spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. I want people to know of his love for the world and of his vision of justice and peace. I want people to know there is grace for our failures and consolation for our grief. I want people to know they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit is with them.

When I’m not re-addressing these fundamental questions I find that I drift from trying to serve the gospel to simply managing a slow decline of the mainline’s flavor of the church, staving off social trends with my own work and creativity — instead of the generative work of Christ. “We’ll try it this way this year,” I say. Or if there is less energy: “It was good enough last year. Just move on and get the sermon done.”

I’m going to lose the fight against the slow marginalization of the church in the United States. I think most of us know that now. It’s like trying to sell Blackberries in an iPhone world. It doesn’t fit anymore — even if there’s a dedicated group of users.

But serving the gospel? Yes. I know that serving the gospel is a worthy endeavor even if I fail at it.

Evaluation returns me to the core of why we do what we do in serving the gospel. Evaluation isn’t simply a tool to make your Wednesday night fellowship group run smoother, your Sunday school class more topical, or your Christmas Bazaar better than the Methodist church’s down the street. Evaluation asks why it’s important in the first place. It’s a reminder that the Wednesday night fellowship group helped a couple persevere through a cancer diagnosis for their daughter. It’s the reminder that the Sunday school class birthed a tutoring ministry that helped to close the achievement gap in the local school. It’s a reminder that the Christmas Bazaar raises funds for a church camp where pre-teens fall in love with God in a way that haunts them and enlivens them for the rest of their lives.

The surprising benefit of evaluation is that it prompts us to return to why we spend our lives how we spend them. In that, we see how God works through us and in us and we find hope for a future.

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.


Casey Thompson is pastor of Wayne Presbyterian church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

Field Guide Preview: Mutual Accountability as Assessment

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

Today, we’re sharing the third sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the second movement of the guide: mutual accountability as assessment.


Of course, we understand that the harvest is ultimately in God’s hands. Yet we also know that even though the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few.[i] Jesus nurtured a culture of utmost accountability. He demonstrated relational power, clarity of purpose, and giving of himself fully in joy, love, and grace. We may not be able to attain that level of accountability, but we can lift that up as our guide as we seek to bear fruit that will last in our particular ministry contexts. To do that, creating a pattern and discipline of mutual accountability is essential.

Mutual accountability is not driving by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there, combing through last year’s itemized spending reports to find where someone made a mistake, or sending out a bunch of surveys or paying a consultant to tell you what is and is not working about your ministry.

If mutual accountability is present, ministry will feel:

  1. Transparent

Participants in the ministry can talk about what they are trying to do and are on the same page. They are upfront about who is involved and who is not. They make realistic goals and plan to be in communication. They are honest with each other when something could be improved or when a ministry or event does not meet expectations. This is handled without blame but also without avoidance.

  1. Energizing

Participants are able to articulate in real time what they seek to achieve. They become more future-oriented than backward-looking. The past is understood a learning tool. Failures are shared. Successes are celebrated. Little time and energy is devoted to those who want to complain but do not want to participate in the ministry’s improvement. Participants are honest about their energy level and make space for different reactions to the same program or event based on how different human beings are wired.

  1. Relational

Participants come to feel connected with God and with each other. They don’t dread responding to emails or attending meetings because they have care for the others involved beyond simply the short-term activities of the project. They spend time in each meeting finding out more about the passions, gifts, and animating stories of the people around them. They hear about the impact of their actions through stories of those impacted.

  1. Empowering

The work becomes transcendent and participants offer grace to one another when a tough season befalls someone in the group. There is less talk about “filling the slots” or “finding new blood.” There is more talk about building leaders and inviting someone into the work because of their particular story and how that generates appetite for the work. People don’t micro-manage each other because they have respect for each other’s commitment and can freely talk about issues as they arise. People don’t fade off or burn out because they are serving in an area where they are known and the work engages their primary areas of interest.

[i] Matthew 9:37

Building Evaluative Muscles

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 Shannon Kershner

Two years ago at our annual session retreat, congregational leaders at Fourth Presbyterian Church discerned God was calling us to make discipleship a priority in the life and mission of our particular congregation. We decided it was time to intentionally focus on nurturing and growing our sense of God’s claim on our lives and life together, as well as our ability to articulate the difference that claim made in our lives. As a congregation, we have always felt strongly called to work for God’s justice and compassion in the world, but we have not always been able to articulate why. The session decided it was time to help all of us give words as to why we did what we did. It was time to help our folks be able to describe what made us, as a congregation, different from other non-profit agencies who did similar community outreach work. We felt God was challenging us to work on a deeper sense of discipleship.

As we continued to wrestle with what that meant (including trying to define discipleship!), we began to get stuck on how we would know if we were making progress. What were the metrics we could use to see if we were actually doing what we said we felt called to do? We knew that we could not just use the church’s operating budget or our worship attendance numbers to tell us if the discipleship priority was taking hold. Both financial health and attendance statistics provide useful data, but neither thing captures “success” – at least not in terms of ministry. And yet, those kinds of quantitative metrics were all we had.  

I was always reminded of this point whenever elders who had rolled off session would want to hear how things were going. “How are we doing with our discipleship priority?” they would ask. “Are you seeing some shifts occur?” Being a preacher, I always came up with something to say, but I also felt inadequate to describe the progress I saw taking place. I had a variety of anecdotes I could tell them, in which I could describe how I saw our baptisms shining brightly, but I did not know if that “counted,” in terms of metrics… until NEXT Church launched the Cultivated Ministry project.

Our session took the Cultivated Ministry method out for a spin this past June at our last annual retreat. I will admit it was a little rocky in the beginning. Some of my folks needed to be convinced that the traditional ways of measuring healthy ministry via budgets and attendance were actually meant to be inputs rather than outputs. In other words, a church’s financial resources and people resources are means to an end and not the “end” itself (hint—the end is God’s complete reconciliation of the cosmos). It is a shift to recognize that people’s stories of transformation are just as valid as how many people showed up. We have been counting for so long that other ways of describing progress can feel suspicious or threatening. However, the more we practiced broadening our vision as to what/how to measure “successful” ministry, the more it began to feel right. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten started.

Our next steps will be to keep practicing the Cultivated Ministry method with small, well-defined ministry programs. It is still difficult to measure how we are doing regarding deepening our discipleship, but we can become more adept at these new metrics if we start with smaller tasks. For example, we can use this method to see how our new family neighborhood small groups are working  Or we could use this method to look at a new mission trip. Or we could use this method to evaluate our session meetings or our trustee meetings. There are a myriad of different ways we could implement Cultivated Ministry metrics as we build our evaluative muscles.  

I am thankful for the group who gave this work all of their time, energy, imagination, and love. I get excited to imagine how this different way of measuring healthy ministry might take root in the congregation I serve. It feels faithful and interesting. And I believe it has the potential to keep us from getting too comfortable or stagnant. The practice of Cultivated Ministry will help us grow deeper in our discipleship and more articulate about how our faith impacts our life. We are going to keep working at it, undoubtedly messing up and trying again, as we try to figure out how to scale it for our different ministries and mission. I hope other congregations will join us in the experimenting!


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.