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Nurturing Diversity in Preaching

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 Patrick Johnson

About the time I was first discerning a call to ordained ministry, I had the privilege of spending some time with a nearby pastor whom everyone knew as “Pastor Dave.” The church he had served for decades was not the biggest, not the most innovative, and not the most active by a long shot. But it was widely regarded – especially by other pastors – as one of the healthiest churches around. Amid the continual swirl of tips, tricks, and programs for doing church better, Pastor Dave had patiently cultivated a diverse and strong congregation. I asked Pastor Dave one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied quietly, “There’s one question that often keeps me awake, especially on Saturday night. It’s probably the driving question of my ministry: God, what kind of people am I forming?”

Week in and week out, more than anything else, preaching forms a congregation. In small bites of 15, 20, or 30 minutes, added up over the course of seasons and years, preaching cultivates a church by shaping its questions, fostering its conversations, kindling its faith, weaving its guiding metaphors, naming its values and beliefs, setting its tone, and ultimately nurturing its diversity. How can we nurture diversity and make room for difference from the pulpit?

One place to start is simply to recognize the rich diversity that already exists in our congregations, even in congregations that look the same on the surface. You can sense this standing at the door after worship, hearing fifty or a hundred different versions of the same sermon. It’s not that the sermon was muddled, but that it was speaking into a thick context of engaged and multi-layered meaning-making. Each of us listens with a set of beliefs, values, experiences, questions, challenges, hopes, and fears that is our own personal hermeneutic. Sometimes in a sermon, this hermeneutic reminds me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but more often it’s where the Holy Spirit does her connect-the-dots work in my soul.

In my experience, finding ways to explore my congregation’s rich diversity has made me much more sensitive to how I nurture diversity and create room for others in preaching. Feed-forward and feedback discussions – discussing the text and sermon before and after preaching – have been invaluable. They have helped me understand how a text and sermon actually intersects with the lived experience of the congregation. I have learned where the affirmations are, and where the pushbacks are, where nuances are needed, and most especially where others’ views and experiences are different from mine.

It’s also been very important to me to find ways to celebrate and affirm diversity actually in the pulpit. As a friend says to her congregation often, “God created a riot of diversity. Get used to it!” Imagine if we intentionally and regularly preached on the diversity of creation and the kingdom of God the same way we intentionally focus on stewardship, or mission, or even Advent and Lent? And surely that would include making room for a diverse group of voices in the pulpit. Any congregation, no matter how small or homogenous, needs to hear a variety of preachers. Different races, genders, life experiences, and diverse ways of speaking the gospel breaks open new meaning and makes space for others.

Of course, even as we cultivate the voices of others in the pulpit, we can’t neglect the really important work of finding and claiming our voice. Preaching that tries to be all things to all people or treats the pulpit as a “neutral space” does not, in the end, create a diverse or strong congregation. Ironically, it creates a fragile congregation, where people are afraid to be different from one another and there is little room for the stranger. On the other hand, preachers who can bear witness to God’s word to them, who can confess their core convictions and name their deep questions, and especially who can be honest about their blind-spots – in the long run, those preachers shape congregations of people who can do likewise. To put it simply, by being ourselves we make room for others. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but well-differentiated people – and preachers — are essential to diverse community.

We’re living in such a sharply polarized time that maybe one of the few things we share in common is a deep concern about our ability to hold together as communities and plural societies. Yeats’ grim diagnosis in “The Second Coming” – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – has become a daily worry for nearly all of us. One of the great promises of the gospel is that in Christ all things do and will hold together – even the most diverse congregations of our wildest imagination! The work of preaching, over seasons and years, is to invite us to live with and into that promise. When we trust that the center will hold, riotous diversity is not a threat – it is the joyful feast of the people of God!


Patrick Johnson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina and an active member of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also the author of The Mission of Preaching: Equipping God’s People for Faithful Witness.

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.

Sitting Side-by-Side

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 Jessica Patchett

Nicole’s eyes got big.

“It’s not you, it’s us,” Lisa said.

There had been an audible gasp in the room when I had said that we should ‘segregate’ our two financial asks for the upcoming luncheon.

It was the week after the Charlottesville riots, and we all had trauma hangovers.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Don’t worry about us,” Glencie said. “Just be aware when you’re out and about that people might take that the wrong way”.

“Good advice” I said. “So, let’s remove the ‘ask’ for lunch donations from the room and do that online in the Eventbrite RSVP process, so that people don’t have to know who can pay for lunch and who can’t. Then our general ask for financial support can be the only one we make live in the room.”

“How sensitive of you to think of that,” Lisa said. “I like it. I’ll make it happen.”

Nicole, Glencie, and Lisa are black. I’m white. We’re four of six core team members of a network we launched called Clergy Women of Charlotte.

It was Nicole’s brainchild. She is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition. She’s passionate about encouraging women in ministry to live into their fullest potential. When Nicole pitched me the idea of a local clergywomen’s network, my initial internal reaction wasn’t favorable. Many of the clergywomen groups I’ve been part of haven’t lasted long (or I haven’t lasted long in them).

But quickly, I realized that this one had the potential to be different than anything I’d tried. It would be local and diverse – racially, theologically, politically, generationally, spiritually, and vocationally – in a moment when our community desperately needed leaders to break down the walls between social segments.

At our first Core Team huddle, we had to have a hard conversation about how we would name and define ourselves. There were decisions to be made: would we be explicitly Christian (yes); would one have to be ordained in a tradition in order to find a home in it (we’d hope not); would we stand for something bigger than ourselves (we’d want to be open to the Spirit’s leading).

Out of that discernment process, we articulated our intentions: Our mission is to gather women in the greater Charlotte area to support one another in cultivating health and vitality for sustaining one’s calling in Christian ministry.

At our first public event, about 40 women gathered for breakfast, encouragement, and prayer. We were largely black and white. We were pastors, professors, chaplains, first ladies, bi-vocational laborers, storefront preachers, evangelists, and authors. We were Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and non-denominational. Our speakers that morning included a Baptist overseer with more than 40 years in local church ministry and the director of the American outpost of an international para-church spirituality and justice movement.

And we were all neighbors.

It was a gathering unlike any I had attended in my decade of ministry in Charlotte.

Some people in the room were deeply rooted in traditions that don’t elect or appoint women to the highest leadership positions in their churches. Some hoped this network would help them on their journeys to live fully into the roles available to them in their traditions. Others hoped this gathering would stand behind them in their pursuits to shatter stained glass ceilings. Still others came as members of the LGBTQ+ community, wondering if this network would be broad enough to support them in their vocational endeavors.

When the Core Team met to debrief our first public event, we quickly realized that it would be a real miracle if all these different kinds of women kept coming together around breakfast and lunch tables year after year.

And, in the next moment, we opened our eyes to see that this would be the point of it all: to witness what beauty the Spirit of God would call forth out of our humble efforts to sit side by side, pray for each other, and affirm the dignity of each person’s unique life in Christian service.

Over the past year, we’ve continued to grow and connect with a broader circle of people. We have a web site; we’re filing for non-profit status; we’ve gained the support of seminaries, small businesses, churches, and individual donors. These are enormous blessings that will help us continue and expand our work.

But the most beautiful fruits of this effort are the deep, spiritual gifts of unencumbered friendship. Members of the network host each other for breakfast, work out together, celebrate each other’s personal and vocational milestones, and recommend each other for opportunities to work and serve in ministry.

The Wednesday after the events in Charlottesville, I met Nicole for yoga. Almost at once, we both said, “I didn’t realize how much I needed to see you!” After class, we walked to the store to rehydrate and had a good, honest talk about the week and how we were dealing with it.

And that’s what we hope will happen for many other women as they begin to live together in the diverse community of the Clergy Women of Charlotte: that we and they will continue to push past polite, become intimately acquainted with the deep longings of each others’ souls, and support one another in the ways that God calls us to serve in the world-redeeming ministry of Jesus.


Jessica Patchett serves as Associate Minister for Christian Education at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and as a member of the Core Team of the Clergy Women of Charlotte. She loves a good book, a challenging workout, the great outdoors, and cooking for her friends. You can learn more about the Clergy Women of Charlotte at www.clergywomenofcharlotte.com.

Our Commitment to Racial Diversity

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 Aram Bae

Recently a colleague asked me about the racial make-up at the church where I work. Simply put, his question was: “How many non-whites are in your congregation?” It was an easy question to answer, for I could count on one hand the folks who came to mind. While my number may be wrong in terms of actual membership, the headcount is accurate for consistent worship attendance. It’s easy to make that kind of headcount out of a sea of white faces. It, in fact, comes naturally to me; I do this wherever I am, be it at a coffee shop, on the bus, at a lecture, in a restaurant—any time and everywhere, instinctively.

Photo from First Pres Charlottesville Facebook page

The PC(USA) denomination isn’t entirely white, but we’re also not balanced in our racial make-up. According to the new PC(USA) Church Trends site, approximately 8.75% of members identified as Asian, 9.3% identified as African American, 7.69% identified as black, 4.6% identified as Hispanic, and 96.25% identified as white in 2016—just to name a few. We do, however, know when and how to showcase our commitment to diversity, especially racial diversity. It’s good for press, and we’ve got Scripture to back-up our efforts. We pat ourselves on the back for being progressive in this way, and we make efforts to keep moving forward holding hands with non-white peers. Our “progress,” however, can be felt as more of a political ploy than a commitment for partnership. Simply ask a person of color the contexts in which s/he has been invited to speak, preach, teach, keynote, or pray for the denomination on the basis of an event that is NOT about race or diversity. Yes, I’m talking about multicultural tokenism. It still exists, and we progressive Presbyterians play a role in perpetuating the diversity game—we play it when we need it; when it makes us look good.

I have mixed feelings about being a racially and ethnically diverse church. On one hand, how beautiful of an image. On the other hand, as a person of color, sometimes all I want is to be among my people and feel like a majority, even if for a few hours of one day out of a long week when I’m surrounded by anything but a sea of Asian faces. I support our denomination’s efforts in wanting to be diverse—theologically, politically, socially, and racially/ethnically. It’s biblical and right and good. But I also shed a cautionary light to those who are doing the asking. Rather than asking folks to fill a diversity need, we may want to consider asking: “What do you need from me/us?” In other words, turn the tables a bit. Give up your seat of power of doing the asking for your need to be filled, and practice some listening instead. In this way, we just might do as Paul encourages his dearest friends in Philippi: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (Philippians 2:3, The Message translation). The helping hand, in this case, is to be a listening partner. Perhaps it’s time for our denomination to put the “progressive” aside a bit, and simply listen. Simply put, it’s long overdue.


Aram Bae is associate pastor for youth and mission at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. 

 

Mindfully Anchored in the Word: Nurturing Ministry in a Complex Environment

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 Rick Young

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the fabric of our churches and denomination is a constantly changing reflection of our current national climate. This is something we must not only acknowledge, but address directly. I have had the privilege and honor of pastoring four congregations over the past four decades. Each was different, yet the same sort of blessing in so many ways. A pastor plays many roles — and not always the ones we’ve been trained for. While seminary provides a strong foundation, our most important lessons are taught in the trenches of modern day ministry. There are a few things we need to keep in mind as we work together to nurture ministry in today’s complex environment:

  1. The Church is not an easy place to work and play.

This couldn’t be truer today. Recently, one of my colleagues not-so-jokingly said, “I love the ministry, it’s just the people I can’t stand.” As pastors, we enter into the ministry somewhat idealistically, believing that with our leadership, the kingdom of God will be at hand.  

Then reality sets in. A member of one of my former congregations said, “The pastor’s role is to be a medic in a war zone where everyone on both sides is wearing the same uniform.” We are called to be compassionate, healing servants to all of God’s people. As I was preparing to leave one of the congregations, a dear member and friend handed me a framed poem that she had written entitled, “God’s Firefighter.”

The poem read…

“One of God’s great miracles is fire, sent to us on earth. Another of His gifts is a person who understand its worth. Fire can be vicious, it can rage, destroy and consume. It can be gentle, bringing warmth and light to a cold draft room. An evening round a campfire or in front of a hearth ablaze, can bring a peaceful end to even the most stressful of days. A good firefighter knows when to let a fire burn and when to control, when to light a fire under people or down deep inside their soul. I met such a firefighter when my world was full of strife.  He helped me find the fire, and the way to turn around my life. No matter where time takes us, or how many miles we are apart – I will always have God’s fire and His special firefighter in my heart!”  

In my experience, many times the wars were brutal and even unchristian, and the fires ravaged lives and left devastation behind. But with God’s help, we made it through, and so can you. As I said, the Church and congregation can be at times a rough place to play and work.

  1. The denomination is divided, and we must forge ahead together.

The last five years have brought this to bear for many of us, as we have seen dear friends and colleagues depart the denomination. The process has been painful, and the scars are both deep and fresh. There have been arguments, hurt feelings, truths, and untruths told on both sides of the divide. This is a painful divorce, and sadly there are no winners and many losers.

The division has been expressly felt in the state of Texas, where the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) is headquartered. Presbytery memberships have decreased by as much as forty percent. TPF exists to enable and expand mission — together, which is not always easy in this frayed and tattered environment. But we hope to lead by example. Truly, we’re all on the same side. We stand in the middle waving a flag of neutrality and God’s mission. Why? Because it is what God asks of each of us. We are not naïve enough to think that neutrality protects us from the need to take a stand in the denouncement of evil, as well as the relentless search for peace going forward. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, we keep the door open to help facilitate reconciliation and create pathways for future conversations.  

It’s time. We need to pick up our medic bags, bind up the wounded, and unroll our fire hoses to control the fires that destroy while tending the fires of love and compassion that simmer in our souls.


Rick Young is the President/CEO of the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) and served four pastorates along the way.

A Commitment Borne of the Gospel

by Jessica Tate

NEXT Church is committed to diversity within our network and church — diversity of theology, race, age, geography, gender identification, stage, role, ability, church size, wealth, political views — all of it. We are committed to creating community amidst that diversity, even when that proves difficult.

We are committed to creating such community in diversity because our theology instructs us to do so. The apostle Paul teaches us that the Body of Christ is, by nature, diverse. Jesus’s way in the world seems to suggest diversity too. Clarence Jordan notes Jesus’ choice of inviting both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Publican to be his disciples was, by all common measures, a terrible idea. How in the world can those two be in the same room? And yet, when the two of them walk down the street, both followers of Jesus, people could see that something different was afoot among the followers of Jesus.

The Belhar Confession clearly calls us toward diversity in community stating,

We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain. (10.3)

But this is not just a nice idea from a relatively new confession. The Apostles’ Creed calls us to belief in the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. The Westminster Confession states, “All saints being united to Jesus Christ their head….and being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as to conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” (6.146)

We are committed to a community of diversity for practical reasons, too. There is strength and energy in a broad coalition of people and congregations, and with that comes possibility for change. Wisdom comes when different points of view challenge one another, strengthen weaknesses, help us take the logs out of our own eyes, and smooth out rough edges. Diversity requires us to practice the fruit of the spirit, to have integrity with our stated beliefs.

A community of diversity sounds beautiful in theory. In practice, it is hard. The NEXT Church leadership teams have had many challenging conversations about who makes decisions for our organization, who we want to give platform to speak at our conferences and on our blog — and what those decisions communicate about our commitment to diversity. We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes and we are coming to understand just how difficult it is when people (rightly) perceive things differently. We’ve had to confront one another (in love) about those mistakes and help raise consciousness about perceptions and realities behind those perceptions. Inevitably, it’s more complicated than I could have imagined at the outset. It can make you want to throw up your hands in defeat and drill down into like-mindedness for the sake of prevention of harm or for a sense of righteousness. But we don’t.

We don’t, because we believe that diversity in community is a challenge that is borne of the gospel.

Though almost all of our congregations could be more diverse, we experience some type of diversity in most of our churches. Here’s what I mean. Congregations are one of the only intergenerational communities in public life today. They are a place where people of different professions and backgrounds come together. Congregations are places where people of different political views gather together by choice. Occasionally, congregations are places where people of different races or different economic status or different cultures intermingle. Holding that diversity together is challenging.

We see the challenge of holding community together in diversity writ large in the United States right now. There is heightened anxiety everywhere — fear, anger, assuming the worst about one another. And, too often, those characteristics are taken to the extreme in forms of hatred and violence that cause real harm when unchecked. As individuals and collectively, we must condemn hatred and violence, and I pray our faith compels to us be equally critical of the more mundane fear, anger, and assumption of the worst in others that creeps into our lives on a daily basis — and to be particularly quick to confess those tendencies in ourselves.

Our anxiety and reactivity is fracturing us. I spoke to a young woman recently who hasn’t been able to talk to her parents since the 2016 election. Spend any time on Twitter or reading comments on articles and you see just how quickly people are resorting to name-calling, overgeneralizing, and acting defensively. We are seeing heightened reactivity in our congregations as well. Sermons are (or are perceived to be) unfairly political. Emails are sent in ALL CAPS. There is increased pressure for leaders to make public statements for or against and backlash when we don’t and often if we do. Different generations write each other off as out of touch and lacking in commitment. We are mimicking the culture in our polarization from one another.

And yet, we are called to find ways of living amidst diversity. At a NEXT Church regional gathering a few years ago, Diana Butler Bass suggested that the quandary at the heart of much of the current debate in religious denominations today is the question of community. How big is the table we, as Presbyterians, can set? Who gets to set it? And, what will the conversation around the table be? At the core, do we belong to one another or are we just a collection of individuals?

The NEXT Church blog this month will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. These stories told will reflect the difficulties and the beauty, the investment and the resilience. 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. And we will pray for that day to come on earth as it is in heaven.


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.

A Culture of Accountability

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 Andrew Foster Connors

We kicked a pastor out of our community organizing group not too long ago. Technically, he chose to leave. He was in the middle of lecturing the rest of the clergy on what needed to happen. One of our seasoned leaders called him on it. “I’m asking you what are you going to do about it.” The pastor equivocated, returning to his pontifications. Again, the leader interrupted him. “We know what you think about the problem. My question is how many people are you going to bring from your congregation so you can turn your thoughts into action and actually change the situation instead of just whining about it.” I was uncomfortable in the tension, but I confess I was glad that he got up and walked out. I have little patience for people who do not want to be held accountable. There’s too much important work to do to spend our precious time and energy when people want to be “right” more than they want real change.

Accountability is one of the most challenging practices for the church and certainly for pastors. Pastors typically want people to like us and we are often better at caring for people’s feelings than we are at developing them into disciples of Jesus. I know from personal experience that I sometimes enable bad behavior in the name of pastoral care. But accountability is not just the responsibility of a pastor alone. I’ve come to see it function best not so much as a practice, but as a culture.

When I first got involved in community organizing, I developed a relationship with an organizer who met with me monthly to discuss my goals. The first difficult part of the work was moving from amorphous goals like “change our culture of leadership” to “meet individually with all Session members over the next six weeks.” Big goals are fine, he encouraged me, but you have to break them down so I can hold you accountable to them. Of course, if those smaller goals fail to produce the larger outcomes, that’s okay, we can adjust. There’s no reason to be afraid to fail. But you have to be held accountable to your decisions.

The second difficult part was showing him my calendar. “Why do you have to see my calendar?” I asked him. “This is my calendar. Nobody gets to see it.” “Don’t waste my time,” he told me. “If you tell me these are your top three goals for your congregation, I’m going to make sure you are spending your time on them.” Sorting through the calendar, the organizer helped me see that in order to focus my time, I’d have to let go of some other things.

At its root level, accountability is simply the practice of naming our work and aligning our time with what we’ve said is most important. When we fail to run our calendars, they run us. This is as true for the congregation as it is for pastors. Leadership in the church is about identifying leaders who are willing to do this work. Together they discern God’s direction, naming the work and following through on it. The culture of accountability that is built over time attracts new leaders who want to be held accountable to meeting the goals they set for themselves and dissuades “positional holders” who do not.

I realized that culture had taken shape in my own congregation when an elder threatened the Session to either take a particular action or he would resign. I felt the urge to “manage” the situation. Before I could, a ruling elder said kindly, but directly, “you have raised really important considerations that deserve careful attention, but this is not the way we relate to each other.” Others chimed in to remind him what we had named as our work and what we had discerned was not our work. He resigned from the Session. The best accountability the church can deliver is public, transparent and relational. We hold each other accountable.

This culture makes what is often the dreaded annual review meaningful and spite-free. Instead of a few lay people giving their personal opinions about what they like and don’t like about the pastor’s leadership, they are asking questions that are aligned with what the Session has said is the work of the church. “Is our pastor’s time aligned with our church’s goals?” is a much more helpful question than “do I personally like how she spends her time?” More importantly, this culture expands the annual review beyond that of the pastor to the leaders themselves. “Did we achieve the goal we set for our congregation in 2017?” “What did we learn from our successes and our failures?”

I’ve learned through the years that I function best with colleagues (pastors and lay leaders alike) who are holding me accountable to the claims and call of the gospel. That means spending time with other leaders who I respect and who are willing to be held accountable and willing to hold others accountable. In includes learning from leaders across the usual lines of denomination, race, and ideology. And it means learning from leaders who are more experienced as well as less experienced than me. Together we flesh out the specific places where the Gospel is calling us so that we can grow in our commitment to Christ and keep awake to God’s dynamic movement and mission in our own contexts.


Andrew Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He serves on the NEXT Church strategy team and is a co-chair in BUILD, a community organizing group in Baltimore.

Stewardship 101

by Deborah Rexrode

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to God’s service, you could not give God anything that was not in a sense God’s own already.
– C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

For us as Christians, all that we have and all that we are belongs to God. So then what does stewardship look like in our lives today? How do we define stewardship?

Too often stewardship means the Annual Stewardship Campaign. It means filling out a pledge card to make a commitment to the annual budget of the church where we are a member. In some cases, the definition has been broadened to include a commitment of our time and talents so that we don’t put all our focus on money.

As we begin a month of reflections on stewardship, it seems the best place to begin is to ask, “What do the scriptures tell us about stewardship?” I share these biblical principles of stewardship for you to begin to broaden your definition of stewardship:

Ownership – Let’s begin with the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” God created everything! In Psalm 24 we read, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” God is not only the creator but also the owner of everything. The biblical teaching is not that God created everything and then handed ownership off to us or someone else. God still owns all that is.

Responsibility – Once we acknowledge that what we have is God’s, the question becomes: “What would God have me do with all of this?” As God’s stewards, we are responsible to care for all that God has graciously entrusted to us. “Who then is the faithful and wise steward…?” (Luke 12:42) A steward is a person who cares for something that belongs to someone else. The steward is not the owner, but instead manages that which belongs to another. All that surrounds us in this life belongs to God, and we have been given the privilege to manage and care for some of it as we travel through life.

Accountability – One day each one of us will be called to give an account of how we have managed what God has given us. In 1 Peter we read, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (1 Peter 4:10) As God’s people, we are called to live and give generously, especially to help those in need. We are called to give first to God and God’s work, to give regularly, and yes, to give cheerfully. The Bible tells us that what we do with our money and possessions impacts our faith. We are called to be accountable for what God has entrusted into our care.

Reward – Stewardship is the way we use the abundance that God has entrusted to our care to love God and our neighbor. Stewardship is more than money, offering plates, and pledges. As the master said to the servants to whom he gave five talents and two talents, “Well done, good and faithful servants! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21) They used what they had been asked to manage and multiplied it for the good of the master and his kingdom.

Stewardship goes beyond the church budget or building project and connects everything we do with what God is doing in the world. Stewardship is a way of life. It is one of the primary ways that we live out our identity in Christ. We are called to be faithful stewards in all that God is calling us to do. It is being open to the opportunities and challenges that God places in our lives and serving with faith and joy.

Stewardship is a spiritual practice that allows us to live out the belief that all we have and all that we are belongs to God. Stewardship is our gifts of time, relationship, worship, thanksgiving, prayer, service, and material possessions. It is a way of living that includes giving.


Deborah Rexrode serves as the Associate for Stewardship with the Presbytery of the James. She is an ordained Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and brings to the presbytery a background of research, study, and application of the theological understanding of stewardship and the importance of ongoing stewardship education in our congregations. She provides consultation to pastors, sessions, and stewardship committees with stewardship campaigns, capital campaigns, and planned giving. Deborah has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religion from the University of Virginia. Her research and doctoral dissertation focused on stewardship and the role of clergy in providing strong financial leadership in their congregations.

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The Kingdom of God Is

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

by Chris Currie

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

–Taizé Chant

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

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

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

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


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

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Rodger Nishioka

Rodger Nishioka, Director of Adult Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS, gives the final keynote of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.


Rodger Nishioka is the director of Adult Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS. Born in Honolulu and raised in Seattle at the Japanese Presbyterian Church, Rodger is the son of a retired Presbyterian minister. He is one of the most sought-after and inspiring preachers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Rodger taught at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta for 15 years. In that ministry, he taught pastors to be teachers and leaders in the church’s educational ministry, specializing in particular on youth and young adult ministry.  

Prior to teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, Rodger was the national coordinator for Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1986-1999) and taught English and Social Sciences at Curtis Junior High School (1983-1986). Rodger received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social and Cultural Foundations of Education from Georgia State University. He earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (with an emphasis in biblical studies and theology) from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and a  Bachelor of Arts in English with Minor in History and a Teaching Certificate for Secondary Education (grades 6-12).