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Hope For What’s Next

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 Jeff Bryan

Who am I to summarize the blog posts from this month? Who am I to conclude these thoughts? I can only say, “Amen!” Amen to Liz Crumlish, our sister from the Church of Scotland, who said it so well: “We are engaged in a movement not a programme.” Amen to Yena Hwang, articulating a theology of death and rising, while summarizing ministry so succinctly: “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.” Amen to the vulnerability of these contributors, sharing their personal experiences in the difficult work of the faith. I could go through each of this month’s blog posts and find something to “Amen,” but I’ll spare you the systematic approach. Instead, I’ll simply say I’m grateful to be in such fine company.

I’m also impressed by the restraint of our blog contributors. They have chosen to engage the content of the conference with honesty and integrity, whereas I have rewritten this paragraph 400 times, deleting screed after screed. The mid-twentieth century, White, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented, culturally-cozy, Main Line church, and it’s perceived loss of privilege and status… I could just scream! But not our writers. They have better, more faithful things to do.

If we are in a desert, it truly is a desert in bloom. So much good is happening out there! Almighty God is still Sovereign. Jesus Christ will never stop calling forth a church to worship, grow in faith, support one another, and serve the ones he called “the least of these.” The Spirit of Christ will continue to send us out, abiding with us every step of the way, comforting, encouraging, and challenging us. That is, until we reach that glorious country where “there is day without night, light without darkness, and life without shadow of death forever.” But there I go preaching again.

When I hear Presbyterians digging into the faith, thinking critically about ministry in their local (and often difficult and painful) contexts, and doing their very best to follow Christ, I feel inspired. I feel hope. I feel my heart yearning for whatever’s next, with all the NEXT Church puns included.
Here’s to whatever God has planned for us today. Here’s to taking it one day at a time, making the next best decision, and keeping our eyes open for the presence of God. Here’s to the future and the NEXT Church.


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

This Connectional Church

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 Angela Ryo

The first time I attended a NEXT Church National Gathering was three years ago. I was in my first call as a resident minister — a two-year position for recent seminary grads to explore every aspect of ministry in a large congregational setting. Going to the National Gathering was a natural progression of what I wanted out of ministry: to imagine a different church, a different set of tools for ministry, and life-transformative outcome and not just soul-draining output.

So I went for the first time, looking for others who were doing ministry differently and wanting to learn and connect with them. That particular year, there was a workshop titled, “Do Something Else.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for. It was led by three very energetic (I mean, “exactly-how-many-cups-of-coffee-did-you-have-this-morning?” energetic!) pastors who were doing ministry differently. They sure LOOKED crazy! But as crazy as they were, by the end of the workshop, I remember looking at one of them in particular — Nate — and thinking, “how cool would it be to work with someone like him, who can imagine a different way to BE the church!” But he was all the way from Delaware and I was in Michigan — fat chance that would ever happen!

The next time I saw Nate was the following year at the National Gathering. He had accepted a call at a church in Michigan and he was looking to put together a team. I had my first informal interview with him between workshops. And yup, you guessed it — he’s now my head of staff. That’s just a prime example of what NEXT Church is all about: bringing total strangers together in surprising and awesome ways!

This year, I came to the National Gathering with my boss — the one I met at a National Gathering two years ago. We dreamed together as we watched Ignite presentations about Pres House and Serve GR and asked each other, “Why aren’t we doing this at our church?” During David Leong’s keynote, we thought about how we can help our church be at the forefront of change by lifting up artists as prophets and adding fuel to their imagination. Having enjoyed my time with old and new friends, I left the National Gathering feeling rejuvenated and refreshed with a renewed hope for the Church.

I am no longer a resident minister whose job description is to be curious and to dream and experiment. In the busyness of everyday ministry, curiosity and imagination often take the back seat because they feel like luxuries I can’t afford. However, reflecting on my experience from the National Gathering, I am reminded of the importance of practicing the following in my ministry:

  1. Interaction with ALL KINDS of people (even those you think had too many cups of coffee!).
  2. Integration of what I learn from them into my daily life as well as my ministry (workshops are great at that).
  3. Imagination of what the church OUGHT to be and CAN be (Ignite conversations will do that for ya!).
  4. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be transformational rather than transactional in all of our relationships both in our church and community (David’s keynote hit the spot).
  5. Invitation to others to join and dream with me in my ministry and vice versa (that’s NEXT Church, y’all!).

I hope you will keep dreaming with me until the next National Gathering! And who knows? You might end up meeting your head of staff there just like I did!


Angela Ryo is an assistant pastor for Christian Formation at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In her previous life, she was a high school English teacher in Chicago, where she grew up. She loves to watch food documentaries and horror movies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which is which.

A Public Moral Framework

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 Amanda Pine

In an age where every church worker has a blog, the questions: “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to become?” reign supreme in the public leader’s mind. Like it or not, every person employed by a church becomes a public persona of that congregation; thus, the establishment of an unwavering moral framework becomes imperative to an individual’s presence – both in person and virtually. Jonathan Walton’s keynote at the NEXT Church National Gathering helped me to envision how a moral framework might be created, for those behind the curve.

Define Your Moral Framework- How do you guide your behavior? How do you know the difference between right and wrong? When you are solving a problem, on what basis do you make your decision? When you define your moral framework, lead with it. Make it a part of your sermons, your blog posts, your newsletter articles, and any other communication that you can think of. The more often you reiterate your thought process, the better. People may not agree with your moral framework, but they will understand where you are coming from.

Know You Might Be Wrong- Walton indicated that every preacher has to deal with public disdain and contempt. However, it may not always be because you’re speaking truth to power in love and you have such a strong prophetic sensibility. Sometimes, the disdain and contempt comes because we’re just jerks. Acknowledging that your moral framework is not infallible is an important step to overcoming our inner jerk – and recapturing the humility that comes with ministry.

Take Critique Seriously- Along the same lines, church leaders hear both praise and contempt on a weekly basis. Perhaps, as a response to a sermon, a newsletter article, or something that they posted on their Facebook wall. Respond to critique with the same love that you would speak truth in any other circumstance. Just as you hold those in power accountable, the congregation should hold their leadership accountable.

Know the Slide- Every moral framework, according to Walton, should slide based on the situation that one finds themselves in. For example, if part of your moral framework is that you partner and advocate for the most vulnerable group of people, that may change based on the space you find yourself in. While the moral framework itself does not change, who you align with in a particular moment might shift. Be attentive to such changes.

It seems to me that a public moral framework prevents an individual from getting caught in the trap of partisan politics. They can transcend allegiance to a particular side, and more effectively listen to those that they serve. Furthermore, no one is caught off guard thinking that the leader aligns with them on every issue. The development of a moral framework is a great place to start for those feeling called to boldly proclaim the truth.


Amanda Pine is director of Christian faith formation at King’s Grant Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, VA. A graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Amanda has previously served churches in Newport News, VA, and Chesapeake, VA. She is passionate about social justice, community issues, and is an avid learner. Amanda and her husband live at the Virginia Beach oceanfront with their two cats, and are expecting their first human child in June.

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!

Wandering in the Wilderness

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 Megan McMillan

Back in September, I read Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Just like all of her other books, TED Talks, and podcast appearances, I was in tears by the end. Brené Brown is basically my personal life coach. Thus, I have been ruminating on the idea of wilderness for a few months. In her book, Brown tells us that the wilderness is a place of belonging and a sacred place, “[The wilderness] is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, it’s the bravest and the most sacred place you will ever stand.”

Thanks to Brown, I feel the wilderness is a place that can be lonely and terrifying, yet it can also be so beautiful and exciting. The scripture we focused on during the gathering reassured us of that. “The wilderness and dry land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom (Isaiah 35: 1).”

As a denomination, the PC(USA) has been wandering in the wilderness for a while now. As a seminary student, I am so sick of hearing people say that the church is dying. Prior to my seminary career, I served as a youth director for six years. People always say that the youth are the future of the church, but I firmly believe that young people are the church right now. How can anyone possibly think the church is dying where you are amongst 6,000+ youth at Presbyterian Youth Triennium? How can anyone think the church is dying when you’re sitting in Anderson Auditorium with over 1,000 college students at Montreat College Conference? How can anyone think the church is dying when our seminaries are full of eager twenty-something’s ready to serve our church? If you think the church is dying, you are looking in all the wrong places. We are simply wandering in the wilderness.

I really resonated with the sermon on Tuesday night by Jennifer Barchi. Rev. Barchi shared my feelings in that the wilderness is not always an undesirable place. The church is merely evolving into something different. As people of God, we must evolve with it and transform it into something new. There is death in the wilderness, but that gives us the opportunity of holy rising. This dying will not kill us. This dying will resurrect us. As a denomination, I have full confidence that we will use this death as an opportunity to rise into new, hopeful, and creative people of God. “The Church is dying, thanks be to God!” As we continue to wander in the wilderness, thank you NEXT Church National Gathering for renewing my hope in this church that I love so deeply.


Megan McMillan is a student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Currently, she is serving as the Chaplain Intern at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch in Hunt, TX, for her SPM until the end of the summer. She will then head back to Austin to finish her final year of seminary. A graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, Megan also served in Columbia, SC as a youth director before her seminary career. She has two adorable dogs that love the outdoors as much as she does, and is an avid South Carolina Gamecock fan.

Journeying Through the Wilderness

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 Erin Hayes-Cook

“And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild.” Call to worship, Tuesday, at the NEXT Church National Gathering. I’ve kept these words in my spiritual pocket for the past few weeks. They have shaped how I move about in this ministry world in which I find myself.

I came to face dying and rising in my ministry context, vocation, and life. For I feel like I am a leader in the wilderness carving meaning out of rock and claiming the God of transformation while listening to the grief of God’s people. To say it is hard work would diminish the cost of discipleship.

At the National Gathering, I named the dry and desert places with colleagues and heard from David Leong who asked us the question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal and rebirth?” His question stirred in my spirit and imagination. What if the leaders of the church are called to go to the abandoned and neglected places and find resurrection? To me that is a calling.

On the other hand, I heard stories from Sheri Parks and Betsy Nix about the Thread program in Baltimore who walk with young people who need a community to support them. Or the woman who stood up during the presentation and shared about her presbytery holding a racial awareness festival. Blossoms kept springing up.

John Vest presented an imaginative way to move through ministry challenges and find those blossoms with the Cultivated Ministry approach. The shared tools and rubric helped me find another way to claim the God of transformation in ministry. I look forward to using it in the future.

The final challenge for me was Jonathan Walton’s keynote speech, “Be Suspicious of Praise.” He claimed that it is easier to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a prophet. Jesus’ biggest temptation was not found in his interaction with the devil in the desert, but when surrounded by his people who gave him praise. As I try my best to listen to the Spirit in the midst of the wilderness my hope is that I may answer yes to the second question, “Are you one with the age? Or are you being what our age needs right now?”

I’m grateful that my experience at the NEXT Church National Gathering gave me space again to claim with joy the call to journey through the wilderness.


Erin Hayes-Cook is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (’05), she served two churches in the Philadelphia area. She finds community at her Crossfit Box and coffee shops nearby.

A First National Gathering

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 Jojo Gabuya

The NEXT Church National Gathering, themed “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church,” was my first ever opportunity to meet, dine, and interact with 675 Presbyterian pastors, lay leaders, and students. I was one of the students who registered and got a scholarship to be able to participate in the event. Although I heard some disturbing news about the Maryland’s current peace and order situation from a young man who I happened to sit with on the Metro train en route to the City Centre, it did not deter me from fully participating in the 3-day conference.

The superb venue, the warm hospitality, the healthy lunches, the out-of-the box worship services, and collegial atmosphere, made my first three days in Baltimore an unforgettable and worthwhile one.

On the first day of the National Gathering, Rev. Billy Honor brought the house down with his humorous yet insightful sermon. The altar, covered with used Amazon boxes and filled with baskets of bread and dozens of juice-filled cups, rekindled my sense of the Holy and Sacred. In his keynote presentation, David Leong, who describes himself as an accidental academic, talked about Detroit as an urban desert. He posed this challenging question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal?” He shared the story of Vincent Chin, whose murder gave opportunity for Asian Americans to come together in Detroit. So, he stressed the importance of speaking about one’s experience of racism. “Not to speak is to speak and not to act is to act”. And, I was impressed with the story of Grace, a Chinese American who finished her PhD in 1940. He stressed that the desert in Detroit was about the lack of resources for the common good.

The heavy Vegan sandwiches for lunch were a welcome treat that got me through the first session of the workshop on “Creating and Planning Worship for Freedom.” The succeeding two sessions gave me more ideas on crafting a worship service, grounded on people’s struggle for freedom. And, I had the honor of being the only MDiv student/seminarian and UCC member among ten other workshop participants, who are Presbyterian pastors and lay leaders of their own Presbyteries around this country.


Jojo V. Gabuya is a Master of Divinity student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. They are an international student, who identifies as an Asian non-binary transgender person. They are also a Member in Discernment for Ordained Ministry in the United Church of Christ. And, they are currently serving as Minister in Training at El Cerrito, where they have been trying to dance the Word of God, instead of reading it.

Death to Bring About Resurrection

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 Michele Goff

I come to the NEXT Church National Gathering every year to be reminded that I am one of many church leaders striving to teach the radical healing love of Jesus’ Christ.

The ideas I bring back to my church from the National Gathering surprise me, often. This can be some creative element of worship, a particularly insightful phrase from communion liturgy, or the depth of meaning found in one particular scripture preached from insightful and varied perspectives.

During opening worship, when I dip my bread in the cup, I am blessed with the words: “the cup of liberation.” I am floored with humility. AMEN! The intellectual piece of my brain says, of course. But my soul is about to burst from this enlivening kiss from the Holy Spirit. Liberated from sin. Set free to participate in radical love. Loved and unfettered because God’s power is compassion, not coercion, as the preacher articulated moments before. I have just participated in a declaration of liberation. Yes, Alleluia!

I notice, more than once, that I am not the only one whose emotions stream down my face as we worship together. Whether we are washing one another’s hands or taping prayers to cardboard box “roadside memorials” scattered throughout the space, worship becomes a tactile experience. Worship is traditional and fresh: we break bread as one and in intimate circles around roadside-memorials-turned-communion-stations. And of course there is joyful singing – by those assembled, by the NEXT Church choir, led and shared by special guests, and even performed by the children of the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir.

This year’s theme of “Desert in Bloom” was particularly fruitful. It unified the workshops and was easy to recognize in teaching, sharing, and art.

The message of finding love for the fool kept surfacing for me. “A highway shall be there … no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” (Isa. 35:8)

It is easy to witness many people pointing and calling one another fools lately. And I hear myself doing the same thing. As I experienced this text with fresh ears, I heard for the first time that even if I stumble and behave like a fool, God will guide me back to the highway that is the Holy Way. And the “others”, the ones I may think are blind or deaf or fearful of the truth – they too can be restored. When God restores them, and corrects my own foolishness, we will be on the Holy Way together.

In the preaching I heard: Billy Honor exhorting us to call upon the Holy Spirit to be the “super” to our “natural.” With thoughtful humor, Kathryn Johnston cautions us to be careful where we draw the line [between us and them] because Jesus is always on the OTHER side of it.

There is hope for the fool! This is a blossoming bedrock of hope – an answer to the many fears that threaten and infect the world.

The theme this year successfully zeroed in on the importance of death to bring about the transformative power of resurrection.

I return home refreshed, and open to the ways that divisive and harmful attitudes, traditions and fears may be allowed to die a normal and timely death so that the full glory of resurrection might be realized.


Michele Goff is the pastor of Aztec Presbyterian Church in Northwestern New Mexico. After almost 12 years in television production, she graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2015 having finally found her true calling. She is an avid Sci Fi fan and a fledgling knitter whose “happy place” is on the sofa next to her husband with her two dogs at her feet.

The Dream of Our Future

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 Shirley Dudley

I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a life-long Presbyterian, and a minister’s wife, confirmed over 70 years ago. I have attended many conferences through the years, especially the ones with the Presbyterian women, but this was my first time at the NEXT Church National Gathering. What struck me throughout the conference was its INCLUSIVITY. Everyone was at the table in every aspect of this conference – top leadership, worship leadership, worship space arrangements, workshop participation and leadership, worship music, entertainment, etc. Also, people were not afraid to laugh at themselves and they did not take themselves too seriously.

The next thing that grabbed me was the INNOVATION. It was like we were living in “the dream of our future” at this gathering. I am not only talking about the big things but the little things, too, like the cardboard box altars where people could leave mementos and congregate. I did not know that there were so many ways to get people out of their comfort zones in a church-related situation. My husband was a professor of Church and Community in several seminaries and I know he would have been stimulated, as I was, with Dr. Leong’s discussion of race and place. I am in a multi-cultural downtown church with people who come from everywhere else but the downtown. It is freeing for us to have to mingle and worship together, but it requires a time commitment that we are sometimes not willing to give in order to make a dent in the crises of our city. So even if we are not bound by our individual places, we are bound by our “place” in a troubled city.

Since I returned home, I was asked to share my experiences from the conference with my session and offer some concrete ideas for our future. I described all of the above, the worship theme, the main speakers, the energizing testimonials from Baltimore, workshops, and some of the fun things that happened to me personally as I reconnected with old friends. Then they asked me for concrete ideas for our church. Here are a few of those:

We are a small church that could definitely benefit by intergenerational opportunities. There are moments when we could share in small groups with each other in the worship service itself. We have many small tasks that could be spread around and the children could be more included in decorating our sanctuary, even finding pictures for the pastors to use on Sunday morning in our screen.

We don’t have to be so serious all the time. This conference seemed to give permission to “lighten up.”

We work diligently with hunger problems, but digging deeper in our local community for partners in ministry would work well for us – especially as the city of Hartford is becoming a place of change and more young people.

I was also moved by the Florida groups that were supporting the students affected by the massacre. We too can take part in the efforts to win more gun control.

We also have DACA leadership in our church and they need support.

And on and on… Yes, with the help of God, we will try to do our own “rising” in a wilderness church with inspiration from a life-giving conference.


Shirley Dudley an 85 year-old mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and was married to a Presbyterian minister and faculty member of McCormick Theological Seminary (and Hartford Seminary), Carl Dudley (now deceased). She served as first full-time registrar and assistant dean at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1976 -1993. Shirley presently lives in an Active Life Care Senior Center in Bloomfield, CT, and attends a downtown Hartford Presbyterian Church.

Guided by Faith

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 Hope Schaefer

When our associate pastor approached me about attending the NEXT Church National Gathering, I was honestly hesitant. What was I going to gain from attending this conference? It wasn’t until I started to read the workshop descriptions that I realized how perfectly NEXT Church aligned with my career and my own personal passions. As a lay leader in my church, I registered for three workshops, from which I knew I could bring back information to apply for our congregation and my job as program manager at a non-profit food pantry.

Leading up to the conference, I had several conversations with my husband about strengthening my faith and helping it guide me in my career, but it was something I was struggling with. Once we arrived, I relinquished my hesitation and allowed myself to be open to all the National Gathering had to offer. The first service of the conference invigorated me. Internally though, I was still struggling to answer my question of career and faith: just how could I intertwine the two? I feel that faith is something I should hold close. We are not a faith based food pantry, but it’s something that I recognize daily in my work. It gives me hope and strength for social justice and the immense problems that our pantry clients face.

My first workshop, Coaching for Transformation, led me to my answer, an answer that really had been staring me in the face the whole time. With a partner in our workshop, we shared a “problem” we were facing and our partner had to respond with thought provoking questions. I explained the internal battle I had of better integrating faith into my career. Right away my partner responded with, “Why don’t you change your perspective?” Why shouldn’t faith always be a part of my career? Why would I need to separate the two? She responded, “What’s stopping you from your faith always being present in your day, especially as a woman with strong faith?” That was it. I needed to change my perspective, flip my thinking, and choose to see what was already there!

The NEXT Church National Gathering was an amazing opportunity to change perspectives and inspire us to focus on what COULD be. These perspectives can allow us to praise even while something may be dying or failing that death and failure can still bring about new life and opportunity. So, thank you, NEXT Church, for breathing new life into my passion for fighting hunger, sharing my faith and letting it guide me, and speaking up for all that I care about.


Hope Schaefer is a lay leader at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah, WI. Hope is a full-time program manager at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry. This large non-profit food pantry provides food monthly to 2,000 households and distributes over 1.3 million pounds of food a year. Hope is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Master of Science program in Recreation Management and in her spare time she runs half marathons with her husband (and soon the Chicago Marathon!) and plays cello.