Talking Membership… in a Join-Averse World

by Mark Davis

About four times a year I lead a “New Members Inquiry.” Once upon a time it was called “New Members Workshop,” but we had to adjust the language because many people were interested in the content but wary of being committed if they attended. The name change was a small concession to a large challenge. It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.

While I share many (not all) of the concerns that people have regarding institutions, I am a strong advocate for church membership for two reasons – one of which is theological and the other of which is biblical.

The theological reason I strongly push membership is because I do not want to see the church reduced to yet another cog in the wheel of capitalism, where every decision is predicated on passing the muster of “What’s in it for me?” The church is not a vendor, at which we shop as long as we like the products it carries and the service it provides. It may be the case that this is exactly how people will approach the church regardless of my theological convictions, because we are surely steeped in capitalist rationalization. And, while many people whom I admire argue that we should de-institutionalize the church, starting with eliminating the notion of membership itself, I worry that we would lose something extremely valuable in the process. What we might lose falls under the biblical reason that I strongly push for church membership.

When the apostle Paul addresses church membership, his ongoing analogy is to speak of the church as a “body.” Indeed, one meaning of the English term “member” is “body part.” Most of us have lost this association in our language, except for the term “dismember,” which we still use to speak of losing a body part. Likewise, the term “remember” carries the connotation of being re-attached to something that is part of us. In Paul’s language – which I believe we should strive hard to recover – “membership” is an organic term, not an organizational one.

My favorite illustration of what membership means is a story I once read about Ben Franklin. He was writing a letter to a friend and asked the friend to excuse his handwriting, because the gout in his large right toe was being particularly bothersome. The very idea that swelling in the large right toe could make writing with his left hand shaky is a perfect example of what it means when Paul speaks of being “members one of another.” We weep because another is hurting; we rejoice because another is dancing; we tremble because another has gout. Becoming a member is not simply a matter of joining an organization until it no longer suits us. Members take the risk of being vulnerable to each others’ joys and concerns.

This organic use of the word “member” is richer and more authentic than our typical, organizational approach to the term – whether we consider ourselves for or against it. While I do not want to discard the word “member” because it seems to be overly institutional, I am not suggesting that we simply chug along, using “membership” a metric for measuring success. What a wonderful moment it could be if we lean into our aversion to “membership,” explore what it is that we find untenable about it, and express a vision of what an authentic church would look like if we were organically “members” of one another.

Throughout this month we will reflect on membership, with many of the challenges and promises that come with it. Stay tuned.

Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Re-post: Free to Journey Towards Home

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 4, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Steve Willis

home smallThe elder said to me, “It feels like the church is in exile, like ancient Israel, away from home and in a foreign land.” “Sydney” is an amazing elder, a professional mother of two great young kids, extremely well educated and remarkably committed to her church. I’ve heard her exile description of the church since starting seminary over two decades ago.  Of course I have used it myself many times. But this time it struck me as a metaphor that doesn’t work. Let me explain why.

Part of the reason for my change of heart has been getting to know Sydney, the other elders of her church and the congregation as a whole. For six months I’ve been serving her church, a 1,000 member congregation located in a beautiful, leafy old suburb in Lynchburg, Virginia. Probably a bigger part of the reason for my change of heart is that I have been serving small, mostly rural congregations for eighteen years. I also serve a remarkable congregation of 45 members in a beautiful, Appalachian hollow near Buchanan, Virginia. The shared ministry between these two very different churches reminds me of how the church is changing and also makes me wonder about the church in exile metaphor.

Let me suggest an alternative telling of the covenant peoples’ story for today. We are not in exile in Babylon any more. We left years ago and didn’t notice. And we’re unsure about how to make our way home. Ironically, our captivity was due to our success in the American culture. And the mainline church became a willing partner in the mythology of the American success story. The post-World War II boom of the successful suburban programmatic church was simply the fruit of seeds sown since post Civil War industrialists financed the creation of the first prototypes of the mega church. Our situation today when read through the eyes of this American mythology can only be defined as the opposite of success – failure. Yet through the eyes of covenant faith we may describe it as freedom. We are free to love God and neighbor and know ourselves by the light of the Gospel.

So it’s good news. Right? Well, yes it is. But freedom is a wonderful and fearful thing. The dominant American culture has let us go. Or more to the point – really doesn’t care about us much anymore. The good news is that this is the opportunity to become more of who we really are and more of what we hope to be. The challenge is that this requires traits like the ones the empire resisting St. Columba prayed for – courage, faith and cheerfulness.

If we are still in exile, then the implication is that we are waiting to return to our former success and status in the American culture. But if we have left the exile of our captivity to the American success story, then we are already on our way home. My mom likes to say, “When you’re on a journey, always travel light.”

Perhaps a large suburban programmatic church and a small rural family church sharing a pastor is one example among many of the church traveling light. Multiple models for ministry are being created and reclaimed at the grass roots of the church. You’ve heard them before: shared ministry, bivocational ministry, commissioned ruling elder ministry. We could go on. Embracing and cultivating a pluralistic view of ministry models helps the pilgrim church travel light. The growth of these models embody the reality that our home is not our social location in the American culture.  Our home is the God of Jesus Christ.

Steve Willis is the author of Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

Re-Post: We’re a Praying Congregation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 12, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jim Lunde

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our church over the years, it’s that we’re a praying congregation.” These were the words shared with me by a church member during my first hospital visit in my new congregation this summer. At first I thought it was a sweet statement to make about one’s church, but (as you’re likely thinking) isn’t every church a praying congregation? Over the next few months I would plunge past sentimentality and learn the true depth of this statement.

One Sunday school class exchanges prayer cards at the end of each lesson and commits to hold that person in prayer throughout the week. This class also maintains a prayer blanket ministry. The congregation’s monthly prayer group compiles a list of prayer concerns and creates a “calendar” for church members to lift specific people and places in their prayer lives throughout the month. One of the most powerful moments I witnessed was a prayer vigil that the congregation held for a member before a complicated surgery. At a moment’s notice, forty people came to the church one evening to pray and support this member and his family. I learned that this is a long-standing tradition of this congregation, as they often meet in hospital chapels and in the homes of members before tests, surgeries and procedures.

This practice has even become a community effort. Recently our congregation has joined with four other faith communities in the South Knoxville neighborhood to engage in combined mission efforts. At our monthly meetings, we basically ask one another: How can we be in prayer for your congregation? We gather to support one another in prayer as we discern how God is calling us to serve the South Knoxville community together. In this way, we have become living prayers for one another as well.

As stated earlier, every congregation prays, so what makes this one so different? To me, the difference is that prayer has become a self-defining characteristic of the congregation. It wasn’t a pastor-originated effort, but came organically through the needs and circumstances of the community. Over the generations, it has shaped their common life together. To become part of this congregation means that you are committing to praying for the community and, perhaps even more difficult for some, you are willing to be prayed for.

Whatever size your church might be, I believe herein lies something that can be transformative for any faith community. Having recently served in a large congregation, I realize that such practices would look much different in their context, but there are some common threads which could nourish any community. I think the biggest one is that prayer is not a program, it’s a ministry. It’s not something you can advertise or use as a hope to “draw” in new members, but when a praying ministry becomes part of your missional identity, the result is truly transformational. Rather than catchy programs or even charismatic leaders, across different demographics, people are seeking communities who genuinely care about them. Communities where more people than just the pastor promise to pray.

Every congregation prays, but the congregations for whom prayer becomes a defining characteristic can truly be transformational by reflecting Christ’s love. Blessings in your ministry of prayer.

Jim Lunde is pastor of Graystone Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN.

photo credit: Loving Earth via photopin cc

Establishing/Maintaining a Working Relationship with Your Pastor 101

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Suzanne Davis is curating a series highlighting the working relationship between ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament (or teaching elders). We’ll hear from both individuals and ruling elder/pastor partners reflect on the journey in ministry they’ve had together. How do these two roles – both essential to our polity – share in the work and wonder of the church? What is the “special sauce” that makes this special partnership flourish? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Barbara Cannon

Having been a member of five Presbyterian churches, I have some experience with new pastors, either my being new to the church or the pastor coming on the field of my church. There are a number of pastors and their spouses with whom I share longtime friendships and insight into the relationships they experience within their congregations. These circumstances have led me to want a close relationship with my pastor and family.

Initial meetings are important. After a period for settling in, schedule a brief appointment to introduce yourself. This is an excellent way to begin your relationship. Express support for his/her ministry and a positive attitude about the future of the church. Avoid posturing, recitation of personal accomplishments, and litanies of church problems. Ask “How can we together accomplish the mission of the church?” Don’t expect the pastor to remember your name after this meeting. When you next see each other, give your name again.

Establish a personal relationship as soon as possible. Invite the pastor and their family into your home. If the pastor is new to the presbytery, use the opportunity to invite other local pastors in the presbytery or community. I have done this on several occasions and found it a good way for the pastor to make contacts that will benefit them throughout their tenure in the area.

Written or electronic notes to the family are appreciated, especially on special occasions. I send a note of thanks to the family on the yearly anniversary of my pastor’s arrival at the church. Notes of encouragement or congratulations after a particularly meaningful sermon or a contentious problem are most appropriate.

Recognize the knowledge and education of your pastor. I remember asking my minister Randy Taylor, former Moderator of the General Assembly, the meaning of a word he used in a sermon. I increased my vocabulary and he recognized there were worshippers who were listening intently.

Remember the spouse and children. They are often left out of the early assimilation. On one occasion, an ex-officio position on the Coordinating Team of Presbyterian Women was created for the wife of the new minister. The pastor called to express his gratitude. She met and worked closely with a group of women in this capacity. A bond was formed almost immediately. Children can be invited for play dates or birthday parties. Their parents will be grateful for these gestures.

Encourage the pastor to fulfill his/her duties to the broader church. Often a pastor is uncertain if a congregation is supportive of the mandate for a pastor to serve in the broader governing bodies. Pastors need to be with their peers, especially if they are in isolated areas.

When you have things to discuss with the pastor, make an appointment. Respect his/her time, keeping a list of items to include in the meeting. Wait until you have several topics before you meet. If there are items the pastor needs to prepare, mention those when you make the appointment. I am often guilty of trying to give information to the pastor or ask questions of the pastor at inappropriate times (at a bereavement reception for instance). If this is truly necessary, write it down for him/her. I am working on this.

Do not be a tattletale unless you are the one confessing.

Say yes when your pastor asks you to serve the church.

All of these suggestions, simple though they be, will establish a relationship that will serve you and your pastor well. If the time comes when either of you feels a need to provide constructive criticism, you will have the mutual respect that allows the exchange.

Barbara S. Cannon is a ruling elder, not currently on the session, at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Huntersville, NC. She is a former Moderator of Charlotte Presbytery, formerly Mecklenburg Presbytery. Her service to Presbytery includes serving on the Permanent Judicial Commission, Christian Education Committee, Preparation for Ministry Committee and presently the Committee on Ministry.

What is No Longer So?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jessica Tate

In Blair Monie’s short video “What Isn’t Helpful Anymore?” for “The NEXT Few Minutes,” he identifies the reality that as people and systems evolve, practices need to change with them and yet we often keep practices the same beyond their usefulness.

This reflection exercise could be incorporated in many ways in ministry settings:

  • A reflection exercise by a session, staff, or any leadership team, thinking about a particular area of ministry.
  • A reflection for the congregation as a whole in a period of discernment or as a moment of taking stock.
  • An invitation within a small group for self-reflection and deepened relationships as responses are shared.

First, watch the video:

Then answer the following three questions that he raises in the short clip:

  1. Can you think of things in your own congregation/ministry history that were healing and helpful in one time but are no longer so?
  2. Can you think of things in your own journey that were healing and helpful in one time but are no longer so?
  3. What were once means to an end of spiritual growth, but are no longer so?

If you would like to take it even further, invite participants to ask these questions of others in the ministry context and learn from their answers:

Name three other people you’d like to hear answer these questions. Maybe someone who has been at the church for only a couple of years. Maybe someone you consider a leader. Maybe someone who has been at the church for his/her whole life. Maybe someone who you see only a couple times a month.

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

Ministry on the Brink of Death

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Yena Hwang

Each year, the NEXT Church National Gathering creates a time and space for me to think theologically upon relevant topics that keep me engaged, informed, and excited in my ministry. This year’s gathering was no different. This year’s theme helped me to reflect upon these questions: “What is dying? What needs to die? Where/what are the signs of resurrection after the death?” This intentional time allowed me to reflect theologically upon these matters with colleagues in a communal setting, as I continue to respond to God’s call upon my life.

This year’s theme strengthened my faith in the promise of resurrection. The problem is that in order to experience resurrection, you must first experience death. Death is an intricate part of life that most people do not like to talk about, until it is unavoidable. It is scary to think about death, because it is the great unknown. It is sad to think about our loved ones not existing in the way they used to exist, where we can see, hear, touch, and hold them, and spend time with them in meaningful ways. There is no argument; death brings sadness. However, death also brings a new way of being and relating to the world.

There are many deaths we experience along on our way to physical death. These deaths are more subtle and they come so quietly that we do not even realize it until much later. Idealisms die with realisms setting in. Expectations die with sustained disappointments. Dreams and desires die with harsh realities of surviving. Our sense of worth dies when our worth is tethered to the values of the world measured in dollars or skin colors. Whether we realize it or not, we have practiced death and dying in various ways.

What used to be is no longer what it is…

The Church is experiencing these kind of non-physical deaths more obviously than before, it seems. Nothing completely new (remember Ecclesiastes?), but the hyper-connected world we live in makes us more acutely aware of this. The sky is falling! The Church is dying! What are we to do? How are we do respond and react?

The ministry to the people on the brink of death and pastoring to those who are left behind to carry on the burdens of living is an important part of our calling. Any minister would tell you that tending to matters of death – all the various ways that death disrupts people’s lives – is an integral part of our ministry. We know how to show up and be present for those who are dying and grieving; we know how to hold families through their grief and give them the words when they have no words to express their grief and allow the healing process to take place with meaningful rituals of our rich Christian tradition.

So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be. We use ancient words to give their grief meaning. We allow our rituals to guide them. We hold people through their anxieties, grief, and fear of the unknown, and pastor them through their loss of “what once used to be.” We know how to do that. And we remind them of God’s promise for them to consider: resurrection.

What if we were to look at “deaths” as ceasing to exist in the way we once existed, in order to exist in another way that cannot be fathomed? What if we were to look at death as a doorway through which we find ourselves rising into another existence…a doorway to experiencing the resurrection? What if we were to minister to the communities going through death with this theology undergirding all our work? How would that change our attitude, our actions and our messages? It will look different. It still won’t be easy, but I feel more confident that I can show up to do that work. What is dying is the old self – what is rising is the new creation in Christ that will usher in the kingdom of God. May it be so.

Yena Hwang is associate pastor of Christian formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in NJ and M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Theological Seminary in KY, and recently completed her training as a life coach. Yena’s passion is around cultivating healthy relationships and creating meaningful experiences that nurture people’s faith and spirituality. As such, she loves to hang out with people around eat good food and make observations about intersections of life. She is married to her best friend and a mother of two teenaged boys, who keep her real and with it!

The Idol of Discord

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Christopher Edmonston

“We grieve that we have segregated and broken our communities along worldly constructs of race, class, ideology, and belief.”
– The Sarasota Statement

America, and her churches, have historically been possessed by many idols. They are the usual suspects: racism, money, violence, and power. Different eras have made headway against them, but like all idols, they are hard to kill.

Today we face another idol, a closely related cousin to the usual suspects: the idol of discord.

We love to fight. We have all “teamed up” and while our various teams have theological and ethical merit, our teams encourage competition and conflict. Healthy conflict can breed renewal. Conflict unhinged leads to discord. Too often our disagreements have to deepening conflict. Our teams are becoming tribes (read: David Brooks’ The Retreat to Tribalism) and our tribes are increasingly dividing us into combatants.

It is Jesus who issues the definitive caution to discord run amok. In the Gospel of John, he prays of his church and people, “may they all be one.” In the beatitudes he preaches, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The first question to ask ourselves is about how we are investing our power and using our time. If we are not investing at least equal time and prayer in reaching out to those with whom we don’t usually agree as we have in defining our own tribal identities, then there is no chance for peace. No chance for peace means that any chance for oneness is lost.

I have enjoyed membership in at least five “repairers of the breach” groups within the PC(USA) with participants from multiple tribes who hold differing theological perspectives. I have also been part of leadership cohorts and addressed bipartisan groups of leaders with perspectives all over political spectrum. These groups are always challenging to hold together. There are always painful moments and hard conversations. But when we invested equal time to listening to other valid positions, even when they were hard to process, we discovered unexpected synergy and unlikely friendships.

If there is nothing else to be learned from Jesus in our age of discord, it is that Jesus remained engaged with those with whom he disagreed. He held his positions, but he continually went to dinner in their homes, listened to their shallow protests, and returned to relationship with his most strident opponents (for example John 3 and the Pharisee, Nicodemus).

Of course there is a very big caveat. Just like grace can be cheapened, peace can be cheapened. Injustice, suffering, and intolerance in all their forms must be opposed. The same Lord who calls us to peace also calls us to kingdom-building and directs our witness to justice. Peace where there are still peoples oppressed is no peace at all. Wherever the usual suspects of idolatry still live, they must be countered and confronted with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

In the Sarasota Statement, the authors chose a perfect verb about our segregated and broken church communities: grieve. The authors show incredible wisdom in the selection of this verb as we, in the church, have allowed the worldly idols of race, class, ideology, and belief to divide us into obscurity. Does Jesus want cheap peace? I cannot believe so. But does he grieve when our efforts for discourse and collaboration break down? Does he grieve when we get the parties to the table only to see the parties leave after the meal to return to their owns tribes, freshly devoting their energies to the elimination of the other tribes with whom they disagree? I believe he does.

Difficult people and deep disagreements will always exist. There are righteous fights to win. But if the manner in which we disagree is not worthy of the Lord who has called us to justice, then our efforts to declare the reign of God and be peacemakers at the same time will bear no fruit.

It was Aisha Brooks-Lytle, the newly installed Executive Presbyter in Atlanta, who preached powerfully at the NEXT Church National Gathering in 2016 this call: “Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, he starts them.”

Aisha is spot on. It is long, slow, difficult, honest conversation that our church needs. For when we are one in the Spirit, the usual-suspect idols begin to lose their power and dare not divide us or hurt us any more than they already have. There is power in oneness, a power that we have not often tapped these past 35 years. The end of the grief which the statement so elegantly defines begins when we invest more in discourse than we have in discord. Or at the least it can begin when we choose to invest equal amounts of energy in relationship building as we have in defining our tribes.

Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Sing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Felipe Martinez

In our silence, we listen for the stories of those whose cries for justice we have disregarded and whose expressions of faith we have refused to hear. We grieve the ways our silence indulges cowardice, justifies irresponsibility, and promotes fear in the face of injustice.
– The Sarasota Statement, Part III

I have sung in a choir, on and off, since I was in elementary school. Whether it was a church, college or community choir, singing has been for me such a great avenue to enjoy music together with friends and develop a sense of community. Unfortunately, for as much as I like to sing, I am a terrible sight-reader. The best way for me to learn my part is to rely on repetition and on being next to someone who knows our part well. I sing and sometimes sing the wrong note, but I am always listening to my singing partner, working to learn the piece.

Photo credit: Colorful people, Allstate choir 2007, by Becka Spence via Creative Commons

At that point in the learning process, I actually try not to hear what the other voices in the choir are doing, because my little musical brain can only handle so much input. And so I am in awe of my choir directors through the years, because they can hear every part at the same time. Not only that, they can tell when things are not working well, and they can pinpoint which section is not all on the same note (and I suspect sometimes the director knows I’m the one singing notes of my own creation!). At times the director would stop rehearsal and ask us tenors to sing our part alone. It was not a matter of shaming us, but of helping us get on the same tune. Listening to each other, listening to the accompanist, we learned together, those leading the group and those of us bringing up the rear. The beautiful part then comes when we each know our part well, and then singing as a full choir I depend on listening to the other parts, because now we’ve gone from learning to making music together. We sing cooperatively, letting our voices weave in and out in the melody and harmony as the composer would have us do.

As a Church, through the centuries, we have been at our worst when we’ve demanded that only a unison song of our own making will be our song; that no other notes, no harmony could enter our performance. We have been at our worst when we’ve silenced the voices which would have woken up our theology from its oppressive droning on, or challenged prophetically its monotone which we had been indoctrinated to think was the only note which would please God. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

To our shame, when we knew the Church was not singing God’s song, when in our discomfort we silently went along with a harsh tune of judgement and condemnation, of injustice disguised as purity, we unfaithfully let our ears be stopped up and we let God down.

Yet God is steadfast. God has always heard all the voices and has relentlessly invited all into God’s song. As a gracious director, God grants us pauses when we get to listen to voices other than our own, and offers us time to listen to ourselves alone for a moment so we can find our way back to our part in God’s song.

The poet writes there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7) — which I could paraphrase “and a time to sing.” What is crucial is that in that ancient rhythm, the Church faithfully sings God’s song of love and mercy, so that in our pauses we will truly hear those voices God knew were being drowned out, so that in our time of silence we will truly hear the divine melody as it is meant to be heard, so that as we draw the necessary breath of the Spirit we will to jump back into the song when we’re cued.

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

2018 National Gathering Testimony: John Schmidt

John Schmidt, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, gives a testimony presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering.

John E. Schmidt is pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. A native of Louisiana, John served with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and as a PC(USA) Missionary in Japan before taking a call to parish ministry. He was a founding board member of HopeSprings, a ministry in the Baltimore area committed to removing the stigma of HIV/AIDS and mobilizing church volunteers to serve people impacted by AIDS. John currently serves as chair of the Commission for Thriving Congregations in the Presbytery of Baltimore. John and his wife Debbie have been married for 42 years, and have two children and 4 grandchildren. Their daughter and son-in-law are both ordained in the PC(USA).

Joy, Sorrow, and Improv

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: LeeAnn is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by LeeAnn Hodges

Years ago a minister friend shared a phrase I that have held onto: “joyfully participate in the sorrows of life.” This paradoxical statement has gotten me through a great deal over the years, and speaks to the sort of joy I often find in the midst of advent.

True joy is a way of living that is not dependent upon the external circumstances of our lives and our world. And yet, it takes practice to learn how to embrace joy when things aren’t going the way we hoped or expected.

How do we live joyful lives in the midst of the divisions and pain in our world without discounting the suffering that is all too real? One of the more helpful tools I have found to expand my imagination and hold together both joy and sorrow is the practice of improv.

Improv is most often associated with the entertainment industry. But it is so much more than that. It is a practice that expands our ability to imagine and create. With improv we have the entire matrix of the universe from which to draw. With improv, anything is possible. Not even something as constant as gravity is a given. Where else in our lives are we granted the freedom to take our most creative selves out for a test drive?

One basic “rule” of improv is that we use everything. Even our mistakes. Especially our mistakes. The saying goes like this: “There are no mistakes in improv, only unsupported action.” With this reframing of our roles, my congregation is invited to become co-creators of the narrative of our community. When it comes to worship, on our better days we wait attentively for the surprising joy in our missteps, as room is created for an experience of the Holy One in what bubbles up through the cracks in our decently in order services. By embracing this posture to worship, I find myself better able to walk faithfully through the messiness of my own life out in the world, witnessing to the ways in which God’s grace flows in through the cracks of my own brokenness. And joy is more accessible, even in the most challenging of times.

As I consider the church that is being recreated in the shell of the old, I believe that the practice and play of improv has much to teach us. It is messy work, it is often painful, AND it is joyous.

This year, following the NEXT Church Gathering, I will join two of my more creative colleagues/playmates in offering a post-Gathering seminar where we will use some of these themes of improv to help us engage more deeply with the Eastertide gospel readings. I assure you that there will be a good bit of laughter. And if things go as expected, we will all leave better equipped to joyfully participate in the sorrows of life, guided by the Holy Muse that is at all times working within us and through us, drawing together heaven and earth.

LeAnn Hodges is the pastor of Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD and a leadership coach. Her favorite part of her job is hanging out with people, learning their stories, and, if possible, getting in a good belly laugh at least once a day. From those stories, she learns more and more about the depth of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. In her free time… oh, wait – LeAnn has three sons, ages 13, 7, and 5… but when she used to have free time, she enjoyed gardening, knitting, reading mysteries, and watching sci-fi shows with her husband of 23 years (who happens to be a high school physics teacher).