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An Abundant Community

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 Sarah Dianne Jones

Community is, by and large, difficult. It doesn’t matter what kind of community it is — anything built upon the basis of human reality is going to be difficult! And yet, community is what we long for. Brené Brown reminds us in her writings that all humans long to belong to something. It’s within the very nature of who we are, and still it is difficult.

Throughout my year with the Young Adult Volunteer program, community was a theme that came up time and time again. As someone who finds comfort in the pages of a book, I found myself reading a book about the nature of community in John McKnight and Peter Block’s book The Abundant Community. Published in 2010, the book looks at how we might engage in our communities differently than generations past have been able to. Where is the room for an abundant, diverse, thriving community in the midst of busier than ever schedules, technology that sometimes seems to have taken over our lives, and the expectation that one is available 24/7?

From the First Presbyterian Church, Arlington Facebook page.

The book, first and foremost, explores the idea of stepping back and reassessing an individual’s role in community. We must be willing to encounter the world differently, at least in terms of expectations upon ourselves, in order to truly be in community with those in our midst. This means we cannot be content with the status quo when it comes to our communities, and must instead reach out to those around us in order to get to know them on a deeper level. McKnight and Block write that we must move from critique to possibility — it is easy to see the places in our communities that need to work, and certainly easy to make broad statements about the “fix” for a problem. McKnight and Block instead ask that one looks for the possibility in a situation, not just the problems.

Where is the possibility in a congregation that hasn’t yet formed ties to its neighborhood? Where is the possibility in a neighborhood with a school that is struggling to get by, surrounded by families whose children have all grown up? Our communities are built up not by seeing these occasions as cause for alarm or as an example of scarcity, but rather as an abundance. Perhaps it isn’t the abundance one was hoping for, but it is certainly enough as it is. There are countless possibilities for an abundant community in both of the above examples — think of the joy that could come from the steps a congregation can take to begin getting to know its neighborhood, recognizing that sometimes ministry doesn’t mean trying to raise the numbers of attendees in worship but rather being present for all those encountered along the way? Or the possibilities for community in a neighborhood that feels its best days are behind it?

Our communities must be rooted in the desire to truly know those whom we encounter in our lives. Everyone carries their own story, their own experience that lends itself to the creation of an abundant, diverse, thriving community. Without creating the space to build these relationships, community will not have the chance to embrace its possibilities, and those possibilities are too great to let slip by.


Sarah Dianne Jones serves as the Director of Children and Youth Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. She previously worked with NEXT Church through the Young Adult Volunteer program.

Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

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 Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   


Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

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

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


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.

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.

Sabor y Sazón

Editor’s note: We have Danny and all of the people who have been and will be impacted by Hurricane Irma in our prayers. We encourage all interested in supporting hurricane relief to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which continues to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew.

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 Daniel Morales

I’m somewhat of a rarity here in Miami – I’m a native! My parents fled Cuba June 25th, 1971, and took up residence in Miami mainly because like so many other Cubans at the time, they felt their migration would be a short-lived one. In those days, Miami was not the glitz and glamour it is known for today. In those days, it wasn’t even referred to as the banana republic, a term some white folks sarcastically use today. As a matter of fact, Miami was actually pretty white back then. My father shared stories of the few occasions in the early days when renting a home for the family was a challenge, either because they were Cubans, or because he had too many kids; four to be exact. I sealed the deal a few years later.  

All throughout my childhood and adolescence I never really thought much about what it meant to be multi-cultural. Quite frankly, I never really gave much thought to diversity either, perhaps because I was so accustomed to being in the mixture of both a homogenous and diverse culture (stay with me for a bit, that will make sense shortly). The little Free Will Baptist church in which I grew up was its own homogenous community of Cuban immigrants in the middle of this growing pot of ajiaco or sancocho that Miami was slowly becoming. (Ajiaco and/or sancocho is a traditional soup/stew from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and various other Latin American countries.)

Beginning with the 70s and most especially in the 80s and 90s, Miami was notorious for being Cuban town. As a matter of fact, my early elementary school years were at a private school right in the middle of Calle 8 in Little Havana. And while it is true that for a while my people made up a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrants of Miami, I have to tell you, I was always surrounded by diversity and it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world to me. My classmates were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Colombian. They were Black, they were White, and truth be told, we made nothing of it; rather we lived and we did what kids do.

Diversity was not something I was completely in tune with – that is, until I became more immersed in my theological studies. Truthfully, I didn’t learn to embrace my own cultural diversity in light of the broader composite of the United States until I left my bubble of Miami and found my way up to Chicago, where I was no longer a part of the dominant culture.

McCormick Theological Seminary was crucial to my understanding of both the complexities and richness of my diversity. That understanding meant that I saw God not through the lens of the scholarship that has dominated theological studies for centuries; instead I came to understand God through the lens and experience of the people of the largest island of the Caribbean. And with that understanding also came greater appreciation for the sazón (seasoning) with which my culture and the various cultures of the Caribbean bring depth to the redeeming grace of Christ.  

El sabor y sazón de mi gente (the flavor and seasoning of my people) adds a certain flare and spice to the body of Christ, and to the broader body of the Presbyterian Church USA. Some would argue our rhythms accentuate the rich and bold ways in which Christ moves in our midst. And that is precisely where the beauty of diversity lies, because though we are all one in Christ, each one of us – each culture, race, and ethnicity – bring to life the unforced rhythms of grace.

For us Caribbean folks, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 3:28 would read something like, In God’s family we are all one; there is no Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican. We are all equal. In the Caribbean we all dance to the same sweet rhythms of salsa — be it from Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, or Jonny Ventura. (Well sadly, except me, I can’t dance!)


Daniel Morales is the director of university ministries at Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, FL. He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

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.

Instilling a Love for the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Dianne Jones

My earliest memory is of being four years old in Sunday school. It was there that I not only learned about Noah and the ark, Moses and the burning bush, and the Easter story, but also the importance of sharing my animal crackers with my friends, the need to say please when asking for the out-of-reach toy, and how much fun it was to be at church. Growing up, the church supported and loved me in ways that I’m just now realizing instilled my love for the church.

It was at church that there was a community that cared – deeply cared – about the ways I was growing and learning. The congregation wanted to know about the latest book I was reading, read the “newspapers” that my friends and I made in Sunday School about the things that we were learning about, came to my school events, and taught me what it was to be fully surrounded and loved by a community in the name of Jesus Christ.

This community raised me up in the faith, and I went to college assured of my place in the church. I had given the church my whole self, and in exchange my whole self had been shaped by the church. College was my chance to figure out what kind of relationship church and I would have, and I jumped in feet first, full of excitement. In college, I engaged with multiple congregations, each of which offered different experiences that helped to expand and deepen my faith. It was in the moments of great joy that I could celebrate in community, and in the moments of pain I learned to lean on the faith of others to hold me up when my faith felt weak.

As college came to a close, I needed to find what was next. The natural next step was to participate in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, as it was a mission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that would offer intentional growth opportunities that I had yet to experience. What better way to spend more time thinking about vocational discernment and figuring out what my next steps were? I was thrilled to be matched with the Washington, D.C. site, but almost immediately after accepting the placement, my brain filled with questions.

Was my faith strong enough to do this? What about my experience? Will 22 years of living in the suburbs have prepared me at all to live in a city? Have mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools, Montreat conferences, and countless Bible studies prepared me to live into this experience in the way it deserves?

I needn’t have worried. My experiences had not given me a history in working in situations like I do now in DC, but that did not mean that I wasn’t prepared. My faith had been formed and tested by the same community that still loved me. It’s not perfect, but it never will be. The important part is that I have seen the evidence for a strong community to surround you. My YAV year could not have been as meaningful, challenging, and fulfilling had I not been reminded over and over again throughout my faith journey of my place in the community of Jesus Christ.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Creating a Permeable Community

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah-Dianne Jones

As the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) with NEXT Church, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on community. One of the core tenets of the YAV program is intentional Christian community. We are placed with 4-8 other young adults and asked to make a covenant with one another, share a budget, and truly become a community. A huge part of my reflection has revolved around this intentional community I live with, but I’ve also been thinking about community within local congregations, NEXT Church, and the National Gathering.

Community is hard. It takes a lot of work to build a strong and supportive one no matter the setting. I have learned that the struggle with building community comes in large part because there’s no one way to make it work. The effort has to come from both sides.

At the National Gathering, people come together to worship, learn, and enjoy one another’s company in a community made up of people from all over the United States. For many, it’s a time to come together with friends that they don’t get to see very often, swap stories about life in ministry, and catch up. It’s a space in the year to take a breath and release some of the stress of everyday routine.

I attended the National Gathering for two years before I came to be NEXT Church’s YAV. It has become one of the highlights of my year, but I remember walking into registration at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2015 and feeling completely overwhelmed. There I was with a group of Presbyterians that I didn’t know very well and I didn’t really know what to do. As the National Gathering went by, I began to meet different people through friends and my comfort level increased. Last year, in Atlanta, I knew people. My community was there. I always had people to sit with at lunch and knew people to ask about going to dinner. For me, going back into a community I was now familiar with, it wasn’t an experience of feeling isolated.

In Kansas City, I approached the National Gathering from a different side. My role was to coordinate volunteers and be present at the information desk, so I did not spend much time in the ballroom. I did, however, hear comments from some folks about feeling isolated.

I don’t think that there’s any worse feeling than being surrounded by a community and feeling isolated from it. It’s an experience that I have had before and would love to never repeat. I have found myself thinking about the work that the community must put in. How can a community make itself more easily permeable? How can we be an open and welcoming space to those who are entering our communities for the first time? What do we need to change about the way that we encounter others so that they feel that they are seen?

These are questions that don’t apply solely to the National Gathering. I think that congregations, youth groups, presbyteries, and neighborhoods should be asking them every week! We are called to be in true community with one another, not to be isolated. What does that look like? I think that sometimes the answers are simpler than we might think. It might be that a door opens when you sit at a different table or in a different pew every week. It might be that you take on the practice of noticing those who seem to be spending a lot of time alone and making a point of speaking to them. In my community with the other YAVs, we make a point of truly showing up for one another, even when we’d rather stay to ourselves. A question was now ask each other during our community meetings is, “What did you risk for the community this week?” It might be that we risked vulnerability when it would be easier to keep our feelings or experiences to ourselves, or it could be that we risked a new experience that is out of our comfort zone. Our new practice reminds each of us that the work that we each do individually to build our community is critical to its strength. These are small steps, but they’re a start.

We are better and stronger when we are in community with one another. Community isn’t an easy thing, but it’s worth the work.


Sarah-Dianne Jones is a Birmingham, Alabama native who graduated from Maryville College in 2016. She is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC, where she works with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. 

YAVs Connecting with Community (Part II)

By Marranda Major

We began this endeavor with the best of intentions. Through service, we hoped to spend the last few months of our YAV year connecting more deeply with our neighborhood (you can read more about our intention in this previous post). I hoped our experience would yield some good insights for congregations who are similarly interested in engaging more deeply with their neighborhood contexts. However, we’ve encountered many roadblocks before we could even begin. Most of our neighborhood’s community agencies require at least six weeks lead time to set up a volunteer opportunity. Who knew that it would take this much advanced planning to offer up our time? Ironically, we, who are full-time volunteers, didn’t have a clue… Let the learning begin: building relationships – even tangentially to offer time and labor – takes time.

We’ve had one community engagement project so far: on a recent Friday we visited the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s demonstration plot at the Mamie D. Lee Community Garden. After a quick orientation, we divided into groups. Some of us loaded wheelbarrows with wood-chips while others set off to weed and turn over the paths that run through the garden plots. Together, we helped to tidy the paths around the exhibition garden to make it easier for volunteers and student gardeners to navigate. After completing the more labor-intensive tasks of neatening paths and preparing new beds, we enjoyed planting yard-long beans, basil, and chard. We finished our morning at the gardening by harvesting some red lettuce to take home for our YAV community meal.

Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

(Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis)

So, what learning and questions from the garden can we transplant to church life?

  1. We used two different techniques for planting seeds: careful measuring and kamikaze scattering. The yard long beans were inserted precisely 4 inches apart in rows that were 10 inches apart, with a clearly defined process of one person laying the row and the next following behind to cover the seeds with dirt. The chard and basil, however, were scattered at random, comingling in each bed with other herbs and vegetables that were already at their peak.

Of these two approaches, the scatter widely method most closely resembles how we went about setting up these community engagement days, and as we’ve been disappointed with the results, I’m curious what would have happened if we had taken a more intentional approach? We cast the net wide and made a lot of phone calls to the community groups that we spotted during our boundary-walk, however, we got very few return phone calls and emails. I wonder if we would have had more success in building relationships if we had first setting up meetings with volunteer coordinators to explain our context as well as our hopes for our community partnership.

Unlike the parable of the sower (Mark 4:10—20), we can attest that our soil samples are neutral; however, we will have left DC by the time our basil, chard, and yard-long beans are ready to harvest, so we will not know which approach yielded more produce.

  1. Weeds are not the insidious trespassers I imagined, but simply plants that are thriving in a space you intended for another plant. NFI’s Volunteer Coordinator, Caroline, led us on a tour of the edible weeds native to DC—from mint to coriander seed to purslane and lemon balm. We were delighted by the bounty of flavor and texture. We learned that other weeds, like hairy vetch, are desirable because they are good crop covers and attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. This makes pulling weeds less the zero-sum challenge I had expected, and more a test of the gardener’s discretion to know the ideal time to pull specific weeds in each particular location.

From my previous YAV experience doing youth work, I know that it’s tempting to view other extra-curricular activities as competition for our youths’ limited time—weeds, thriving while we are focused solely on surviving. But what if we instead considered the holistic benefits our youth receive from participating in many different activities? While hockey builds discipline and teamwork, theater nurtures creativity and confidence—what will our youth groups develop and grow? Are there symbiotic relationships that we can encourage—a post-practice Bible study or habit of the entire group showing up for big games and performances to show support?

  1. You can pile a LOT of woodchips into a wheelbarrow, but once in motion, content spills. And, should you happen across a bump in the road, you may lose more than you keep. Loading the wheelbarrow becomes a game of balance.

In church life, we are too familiar with this balancing game. Our programs and support structures are necessary for keeping up the life of the Church; however, we must tread carefully as not to be so bogged down that we sacrifice our nimbleness, flexibility, or ability to adapt to new challenges else we will not be able to continue.

  1. Clearing the beds for planting requires using pitchforks to break up the roots of the existing ground cover, teasing out the excess weeds, and churning the earth. The weeds are then added to the compost bin so that as they decay, they could continue to give life to the garden as they pass on nutrients to new seedlings.

When programs have fulfilled their purpose and it’s time to end them, what learning will continue to enrich and nourish the life of the church? How can we honor the memory of and continue the meaningful work of groups like a dwindling local chapter of Presbyterian Women or the once vibrant mission effort once the groups themselves become unsustainable?

There is much to learn from gardening: Jesus used the garden as an illustration in many parables to teach early Christians about the kindom of God. Our time in the garden dug up some questions of how we can continue to be Church today, and planted seeds for future volunteers to grow into relationship with this community. Most importantly, gardening let us connect with our Brightwood Park community by helping our neighbors access local, nutritious fruits and vegetables.


Marranda Major

Marranda Major is serving in Washington, D.C. as the Young Adult Volunteer placed with NEXT Church. While Marranda is sad to be leaving NEXT in a few weeks, she is excited to begin studying for her MDiv at Union Theological Seminary in New York City!

YAVs Connecting with Community

By Marranda Major

The Washington, D.C. Young Adult Volunteers have been living in Brightwood Park for eight months but we still do not fully integrated into our community. They know us at the corner store and nearest coffee shops. As we were driven outdoors for most of the spring by a bedbug infestation, we’re now on a first-name basis with most of our porch-dwelling neighbors.  And finally–finally!–the bus drivers recognize us and will wait when they see us sprinting frantically towards them.

But there’s something missing…

Our relationship to this place feels tenuous, especially as the end of our year is rapidly approaching. While we prepare for the transition ahead of us–for some, seminary, and others, moving and applying for jobs–we are struggling to remain fully present. We’re trying to think creatively about ways in which we can connect more meaningfully with our neighborhood while we are still here. And we hope that in beginning to develop these relationships, we will establish a network that will help the next DC YAV class to feel at home more quickly.

A few weeks ago, during our community day, we took a walk around Brightwood Park. We established what feel like the boundary of our neighborhood, and decided to extend the perimeter a few blocks from the official border:

We scouted for places where our neighbors congregate–shops, restaurants, bus stops–and tried to discern Brightwood Park’s anchoring institutions: places like schools, hospitals, and community centers that hold power.

While trying to read our context with fresh eyes, we also looked for places where we could volunteer. Each of us chose a location where will spend an upcoming community day doing service–the Fort Totten community garden, a local senior center, the library, etc. Each of us will take on the responsibility of brokering a relationship with one of these community groups.

We hope that these service opportunities and relationships will help us to feel more fully a part of Brightwood Park. I’ll post in a few weeks to report back about how it goes!


 

Marranda MajorMarranda Major is a YAV in Washington, D.C. serving with NEXT Church.