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Sources of New Life

by David Norse Thomas

Church conferences can be, lets face it, weird. Long exhausting days can overwhelm me with an even worse sense of imposters syndrome than my first few weeks of seminary. Sometimes I leave with a nagging feeling that maybe this was the year I should have organized a reading retreat with my friends with my continuing education funds instead. But this year, at the NEXT Church National Gathering, I had a uniquely different experience, and I’m not the only one. This month the NEXT Church blog will share the stories and insights of pastors who attended in person and virtually, and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church.

This year, the gathering was in Seattle, and as a child of the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t just the weather and the mountains that made me feel at home. For three days, I found myself engaging in the conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing from speakers doing the work that I see Jesus’ resurrection made visible in. This was a year full of honesty, tackling the ways in which we can be woven together too tightly without room for the people God is calling into our communities, speaking prophetic words about how we need to shift from constructs of racial reconciliation to repairing relationships and seeking reparations alongside our Black siblings, poetry that spoke to the power of being honest about how difficult the work of the Church can be, and where new life is showing up.

For me, one of the most powerful experiences was a workshop on utilizing design thinking in our congregations. Design thinking centers the experience of people and pushes us to creatively utilize the resources we have, instead of mourning what we lack. It is a powerful tool for opening leaders to new possibilities that God might be calling us to risk trying. In the workshop, we utilized the “Mission: Possible” game, and I took away two surprising paradoxical lessons from this experience. First, being encouraged to look at the resources we were given in the game (in the form of resource cards) set my imagination, and those of my table mates, to be creative with the skills and experiences we have. It seems so simple to start with the gifts God has given us in our congregations, but I realized that we so often start with what we lack, instead of giving thanks for God’s provision.

The other surprise came when our facilitators set firm time limits on our planning. Knowing that we had to make a decision freed us up to be more experimental, and to focus. This rang true personally for me. In my context at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD, we have a firm deadline for when we have to become financially stable as a congregation, or begin to consider options like calling a part-time pastor, seeking to merge with another congregation, or consider selling our building. This deadline has unleashed unimaginable creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to risk failing that we would not have had otherwise. We have to act, and while we need to discern, decisions have to be made.

I returned from the NEXT Church National Gathering excited, ready to start from a place of gratitude and creativity, and I look forward to attending next year with more stories to tell. I ordered Mission: Possible for our next session meeting, and I am excited to see what our creative, motivated ruling elders dream up.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Editor’s note: We invite you to dig more deeply into two of the stage presentations David references by watching the video recordings and engaging with the provided reflection questions:

Leadership Forged Through Conference Planning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Laura Cheifetz is curating a series on leadership development. These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Carol Steele

Confession: I am a perfectionist who likes to be in control. I am a “one” on the Enneagram and an ENTJ (emphasis on J) on the Myers-Briggs. I recognize the shortcomings of these describing tools, but I also admit they describe me pretty well.

For me, comfort is derived by creating order (laundry folding, anyone?), poring over details, sleeping on a decision, or hashing out a word choice with people who know more than I do. I feel good when I know that a worship liturgy has been discussed by a focused group of diverse individuals who weren’t under a great deal of time pressure and were free from distraction. I like when everyone around the table has time to think, question, deliberate, and arrive at a (fully proof-read) destination.

So what am I doing working with youth conference planning teams of volunteers who have never met one another, will only ever work on a single project, and are beset by distance, deadlines, and curveballs? Losing my mind, sometimes.

But more often, I am in wonder: at the bonds formed when strangers share a common task; at the teamwork undertaken by adults and youth working as partners; at the faith built when a small group concentrates on how best to create space for their peers to grow in faith.

Photo by Daniel Killilea

So when the words on the screen during their presentation contain a stray comma (or worse); when a discussion requires extra time because the trust required is being built as we go; when the microphone doesn’t come on at precisely the right second because the person operating it just finished exams and is learning their first “real” job; I take a minute and think about the lessons being absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, by everyone, including me, who is taking part in this task.

I believe that along with faith, leadership is being forged as conferences are planned by volunteers and executed by collegiate staff, and that the lessons imparted — even as words slip through misspelled — bear fruit in the church of Jesus Christ and beyond.

Here are a few things you can learn in a summer of working on conferences in Montreat (and also in Mo Ranch, at Massannetta, and Presbyterian Youth Triennium, among others):

  • Way more often than not, leadership involves creating the space for someone who is not you to shine. Leadership is 99% behind the scenes.
  • When that person shines, they will receive 100% of the credit for everything that went well.
  • When things go wrong, it will feel like the blame is all on you, whether it is or not.
  • Something that you thought was well intentioned and fully prepared will, in fact, contain a flaw. That flaw will be pointed out, and therein lies an opportunity to learn, and to avoid that particular mistake in the future.
  • When there’s too much communication behind the scenes, the worst thing that can happen is: nothing. When there is not enough communication behind the scenes, he worst thing that can happen is: everything.
  • Communicating with people face-to-face is hard. Being vulnerable and taking responsibility for mistakes is hard. Getting over it when you make a mistake, and not making yourself the center of things, takes work, and it’s necessary.
  • When we worship God is the audience; the congregation the actors; and the leaders the stagehands (thanks, Kierkegaard).
  • Assume nothing and take the initiative.

To be sure, these same leadership lessons can be picked up in other places. What I get to witness as teams choose a conference theme or plan a recreation event is learning that takes place across generations, theological viewpoints, and a host of other differences, and in an environment where leaders young and old are encouraged to lean on one another as they ask what any of this has to do with following Christ.

As leaders emerge, youth and adults alike are more comfortable putting words to their faith experiences, more confident in their own ability to made decisions and take initiative, and happier in their own skins, having been affirmed in the knowledge that their gifts are actually, really, truly there, bestowed by God.

If you know someone — youth, college student, or adult — who wants to learn leadership in an environment that builds community and expands faith, encourage them to check out our denomination’s camp and conference centers. We’re doing it all the time, behind the scenes.


Carol Steele is vice president for program at Montreat Conference Center, where she has worked with over 20 volunteer conference planning teams and enough years’ worth of collegiate summer staff to make her feel pretty solidly middle aged. Before working in Montreat, she received an MDiv/MACE from Union Presbyterian Seminary and worked on Capitol Hill answering constituent mail.

Continually Growing

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

by Andrew Whaley

“They didn’t teach us that in seminary!” How many times have pastors shared this phrase when relating the beautiful and confusing and frustrating stories of ministry? The truth is, though, that there is no way three years of study can help us to gain even rudimentary exposure to the biblical knowledge, theological skill, questions of pastoral presence, and leadership ability needed to navigate this lifelong calling. In fact, most of those experiences that seminary did not train us for are only learned in the daily practice of ministry in the Church.

Photo from Raleigh Court Presbyterian Facebook page

In August of 2015, I accepted a head of staff position at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. I told the Pastor Nominating Committee during our season of discernment that managing a church staff and daily church administration was the area in which I would need to grow the most.

I was incredibly grateful, then, to learn about the Trent@Montreat conference that I attended in April of that year. Trent@Monteat is a unique conference where participants can sign up for a particular “track” that explores a specific area of practical ministry while participating in worship and social times as a large group. I was overjoyed to learn that one of the tracks for the 2016 conference was titled, “Staff as a Gift Instead of a Headache.”

In sessions with several others pastors who found themselves in similar situations, we met with the Rev. Millie Snyder, the Executive Pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Millie led us in team building exercises we could use with our own church staffs. She walked through how you could lead weekly meetings, conduct regular evaluations, organize requests for vacation time, write job descriptions, observe appropriate boundaries, schedule ministry, and go through hiring processes. She sent us links to particular documents that she uses in her ministry for things like scheduling vacations and policies around personnel issues.
Millie then welcomed our questions, and she and the group helped us to develop strategies to address particular challenges in our congregations. Then, after we had been back in our contexts for a month, she e-mailed the group to follow up and see where we were in our plans.

Having these resources, peers, and an experienced leader is such an asset as I navigate these questions for the first time! Learning in this way is essential to our continual growth as pastors in congregations, and learning experiences like Trent@Montreat are most appropriately offered to us once we have completed our formal theological education. Without the practical experience and the frequent feelings of failure and inadequacy that regularly accompany days in pastoral ministry, lessons about team-building and staff management are hollow. You cannot manufacture these experiences in a classroom or in an internship. They must be learned by necessity and because we are continually called to grow.

Our continual growth in the practice of ministry is one of the ways we live out our sanctification, a theological concept that we do learn in seminary. The Holy Spirit is continually calling us to into deeper faithfulness, not complacency. We need peers who push us beyond ourselves to realize God’s call on our life, mentors and coaches who can give us practical tools to utilize in our ministry, and ongoing opportunities for learning so that the Church might continue to become the fully-functioning Body of Christ.


Andrew C. Whaley is the pastor and head of staff at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, he is a graduate of Rhodes College where he double majored in theatre and religious studies. In 2011 he graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary. Andrew previously served the First Presbyterian Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee. He is married to Rebecca and they have two children, Simon (5) and Joanna (2.5). He loves to eat good food, hear hilarious stories, play bad golf, run slowly and regularly, and cheer for lackluster sports teams (the University of Tennessee football team and the Atlanta Braves).

Sage Training or Saint Training?

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

by George Anderson

What’s your pleasure, pastor: sage training or saint training? Before having that Reformed theologian’s knee jerk reaction that rejects the idea of saints – or gives our tradition’s “everyone gets a trophy” spin that we are all made saints by God’s grace – I invite you to consider the question in light of how the Jewish philosopher Maimonides defines sages and saints.

From the Roanoke Times

For Maimonides, a saint (hassid) is not someone who is perfect but someone who is unwavering in her or his defense of a virtue. A sage (hakkam) is someone who understands that politics is the “art of the possible.” The saint will take a stand despite the cost. The sage will consider the costs, is willing to compromise, and can accept losing. The saint leads by taking a stand. The sage leads by holding the middle.

Often, sages are deemed weak and are open to ridicule. I remember a Canadian pastor poking fun at his own country when he reported that the winning submission for a slogan for Canada was: “As Canadian as can be, under the circumstances.” Tweak that a bit, and you have Maimonides’ description of a sage: “As virtuous as can be, under the circumstances.”

Here is the surprising thing about Maimonides: while he says that there are times for both saints to take their stands and sages to hold the middle, most of the time faith communities need sages over saints. The reason is simple: The Jewish (and Christian) community is best served, under normal circumstances, by empathy, patience, compromise, mediation, and balance; all with a spirit of humility and generosity. Jonathan Sacks defended Maimonides’ preference by saying, “The saint may be closer to God, while the sage is closer to doing what God wants us to do, namely bring [God’s] presence into the shared spaces of our collective life.” [1]

In some ways, I see my outstanding seminary education as being largely “saint training.” At seminary, I was given a vision of the Gospel and what the church can be. The more pragmatic aspects of leading a church were considered in the classroom but the emphasis was on the elegant beauty of the Gospel and what the church is called to be in bearing it witness. It was “saint training,” and I’m grateful. If I ever lose a longing for what the church ought to be beyond what it is, someone needs to let me know that it is time for me to retire.

Yet I have come to value and appreciate what Maimonides says about sages. Maimonides says that the lingering traits of God are not of the saint (demanding unblemished sacrifices) but of the sage: “compassion and grace, patience and forgiveness, and the other ‘attributes of mercy.’” [2]

NEXT Church, in seeking to equip leaders for the church of the future, wants to be a support for the sage as well as the saint. In support of “sage training,” NEXT Church is one of the sponsors of the Trent@Montreat 2018 conference. This conference is designed to inspire with its worship, but also equip and support pastors with its tracks that focus on day to day ministry. It is designed to help pastors who want to lead over the long haul and so want to;

  • deal with staff without being consumed by staff issues,
  • or deal with conflict in a way that calms rather than inflames,
  • or encourage generosity both to support missions,
  • and pay the church’s bills,
  • or preach sermons worth listening to Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

For those who risk disappointing a holy God through the compromises that come of loving and leading God’s imperfect people, this conference does more than support them. It celebrates their ministries as reflecting, in their own way, the image of a gracious God.

If you want to know more about Trent@Montreat, visit the conference website or find the Trent@Montreat 2018 Facebook page.


George C. Anderson is the seventh senior pastor in the history of Second Presbyterian Church (Roanoke, VA). He began preaching at Second on February 22, 1998. Previously, he had been the Senior Minister at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, and an Associate Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, TN. He is a graduate of St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC, and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. George and his wife, Millie, have three daughters: Paige, Rachel, and Virginia. George is one of the creators and conveners of the Trent Symposium and is among the leadership for the Trent@Montreat conference in 2018.

[1] Sacks draw my attention to Maimonides’ definitions of saint and sage in his book, To Heal a Fractured World; The Ethics of Responsibility. This quote is on p. 247.

[2] Sacks, p. 246.