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.

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.

How Do You Say “Thank You”?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Deborah Rexrode is curating a blog series called “A New Perspective on Stewardship.” We’ll hear from some stewardship experts across the country on a wide range of what stewardship means for them. What are ways stewardship can be a spiritual practice? How might we come to a new understanding of the role of stewardship in ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Chick Lane

Most people recognize the importance of saying thank you. We try to remember these two important words when someone does something for us. Those who have been parents recall trying to help their children get into the habit of saying thank you when they receive a gift. We know saying thank you is important, and yet we struggle, don’t we?

Congregations are no exception to this struggle. It is important for a congregation to say “thank you” appropriately when members and friends give time, talent and treasure to the ministry. And yet, most congregations will acknowledge that they fall short.

My experience is that those congregations who are most effective at thanking are those congregations who have a plan for how they will thank. I’d encourage you to consider developing your own congregational thank you plan. As you do this, you might think in terms of both general thank yous, in which many people are thanked at once, and specific thank yous, in which people are thanked one at a time for their unique contributions to the congregation’s life.

Developing a thank you plan involves three rather simple steps. First, you will want to assess how you are currently thanking people. Gather a group of people together who are familiar with the congregation’s operation and create a list of all the ways people are being thanked now for their gifts of time, talent and money. Take your time with this – you may be thanking in more ways than you think.

Second, consider how you would like to thank people. This might involve two steps. You might want to gather a group of staff and lay leaders for a discussion of the question, “How do you think we ought to be thanking people here at church?”  A second strategy might involve a focus group or two of members in which the question is asked, “How would you like to be thanked for your contributions to the life of our congregation?” A word of caution here: you will inevitably hear some people say, “I don’t need to be thanked, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do.” Try to get past this. It is a common response, but you don’t want it to be the last word.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is to consider what you learned in the first two steps, and then develop a plan. Ideally the plan will be developed by the people who will be implementing it. Depending on your congregation’s size, this might be staff or a mixture of the pastor, a part-time parish office staff person, and some volunteers. Your plan should be specific – exactly what will you do. It should have time parameters – when will you say thanks. It should describe how the thanks will be extended – will it be in a letter or email, or will it be a more general thanks given in the newsletter? It should be clear who is responsible for extending the thank you.

A good thank you plan should not be overwhelming. If you try to do too many new things at one time, you will doom yourself to failure. Keep it simple and manageable at first, knowing that you can add to it as you go. A good thank you plan should include specific thank yous, thanking one person at a time for a specific contribution to the congregation’s life. It might also include thank yous to groups of people like the choir, the ushers, or church school teachers. Finally it should include general thank yous to the entire congregation either in worship, via mail, email, or in the newsletter.

If you would like to see a sample thank you plan, visit this Embracing Stewardship web page. If you are interested in more information about thanking, you might explore Chapter 9 in Ask, Thank, Tell and Chapter 8 in Embracing Stewardship.

Pastor Chick Lane is Pastor of Stewardship and Generosity at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, Minnesota, the author of Ask, Thank, Tell, and the co-author with Grace Duddy Pomroy of Embracing Stewardship. Chick has served as an assistant an assistant to the bishop in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod, director for Stewardship Key Leaders in the ELCA, and director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Change and God’s Future

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Glen Bell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, FL, and a member of our executive team, reflects on congregational change and God’s future. Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

Plowing the Ministry Road

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’ve asked some of our 2016 National Gathering workshop presenters to share their thoughts on their importance of their workshops in today’s context. Nate Phillips is one of our presenters. Learn more about his workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Nate Phillips

Unlike the rest of us, Bill was thrilled to hear about the incoming Snowzilla blizzard that buried the Mid-Atlantic.

This was because Bill doesn’t manage snow with a plastic shovel or a finicky snowblower – his weapon of choice is a silver 3/4-ton truck and a snowplow, which, as you might imagine, makes Bill a very popular guy after a snowstorm.

snowy roadHe gets calls from neighbors and messages from Facebook friends begging him to sweep through with his plow.  When they can’t get through to him, they harass his wife and pile on the guilt.

During one of the heavier waves of the storm, Bill was out clearing a residential development when a man walked right out in front of him, risking his life to try to get Bill to stop 3/4’s of a ton of metal on wet snow.  Bill squinted his eyes, pumped the brakes, and rolled down his window.

The man was gruff with him, “I need you to plow my road!” he demanded, “I’ll pay you cash.”

When Bill told me that story, I laughed and said, “That’s not how it goes in my line of work.”

I remember when I started seminary thirteen years ago (time flies) and hearing about a “pastor shortage” in the PC(USA).  I felt confident about being able to find good work in a church, something that could last a lifetime.  That is still the case, for sure.  There are many places where a call is extended and accepted in a very traditional fashion.

However, it is not a stretch to say that there are fewer and fewer churches running out at pastors, stopping them in their tracks, desperate for pastoral services and ready to pay.

During our “Do Something Else” workshop at the NEXT National Gathering, we will discuss the current “job market” and set it alongside a consideration of call.  We will talk about actual needs in churches and actual dreams of pastors and discover that there is more possibility than might first meet the eye.

I will be joined by my colleagues John Molina-Moore and Edwin Estevez as facilitators in this workshop.  John and Edwin have joined me in the last few years in the work of cobbling and creating to work around the “one-church/one-pastor” paradigm and find ways for churches and pastors to be re-energized in plowing the ministry road together.

We look forward to sharing our stories and we hope you bring your story, your church’s staffing needs, and your sense of call for mutual reflection in our brief time together.

Nate PhillipsNate is co-pastor at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware.  He is the author of the upcoming book for churches and leaders, “Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church,” and a devout Red Sox fan. You can pre-order his book on Amazon.

Nate’s workshop, “Do Something Else,” is offered during workshop block 3 (on-site) on Tuesday.