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The Gift of Contemplative Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Kevin Hershey

If I was to summarize the gift that I think contemplative practice has to offer to the Christian faith, it would be that contemplation is what allows my discipleship to truly be a way of life, rather than a series of activities or events that I engage in, or a set of beliefs that I articulate. Traditional Church offers opportunities to learn about our beliefs and chances to live out our faith in particular times and places (e.g. Adult ed., Sunday morning worship, mission events, fun community gatherings). Contemplation moves beyond expressions of faith that are bound by time and place. It is about practicing a constant awareness to what is around me, and where God is in it. It includes everything from my capacity to see everyone I encounter as both “guest and guide” (as those from the Northumbria Community say), to how my body feels at that moment, to an awareness of my thoughts, feelings, and reactions to anything and everything that I experience around me. It maintains an open curiosity about everything I am present to and what (if anything) God could be trying to show me through my awareness. Walking through life in this way of contemplation, then, becomes an expression of Paul’s praying without ceasing.

Mindfulness, as I understand it, carries this same sense of awareness to one’s surroundings and self.
Where I think contemplation deepens this is that it moves us beyond awareness of what’s happening around and within us, and into connecting with all that we are becoming present to. As I become more aware, contemplation then asks me to consider how I am connected to it all. Once I am aware of the sights and smells and beauty of nature around me, how am I connected as part of God’s common Creation? Beyond awareness of the pains and pleasures in my body, how do I experience awe and gratitude for how God has formed me? As I am increasingly present to another’s thoughts and feelings, and my reactions and responses to them, how can I express a sense of connection with that person as a fellow child of God? If mindfulness is a way of practicing a deeper sense of awareness about all things, then I think contemplation is the extension of this awareness into actively connecting with God, others, creation, and self. Contemplation is mindfulness-in-community.

When I do well with contemplation (which is a lifelong, up-and-down practice for me), I am aware of how I am constantly walking together with God, serving God by being present to others, receiving God’s guidance and love through the world around me… it all becomes a way of life from the time I get up, until the time I go to bed. It is part of what I carry with me to my job, to interactions with friends, family members, and strangers, as well as those I’m annoyed by, angry at, or hurt by. It becomes part of the most spiritual things I do, like walking in the wood or meditating, and I find it in every-day things like watching TV and playing Barbie with my girls. Any sense of separation between “holy” times and “ordinary” times of life gets blurred and, at its best, disappears. All time becomes holy time when I become aware of and connected to the Holy in it.

This is, I think, the most significant lesson that contemplative Christianity has to teach the mainline church. There is nothing inherently more sacred about worshiping God in a sanctuary on Sunday morning than there is worshiping God by going to the beach with one’s family. There is nothing more missional about taking a group on a trip to rebuild homes in another country, than there is in noticing someone who is painfully lonely and stopping to talk with them while you’re out on your daily walk. These are all acts of God’s love. Doing them one way engages our Christian living as a series of events, bound to particular times, spaces, and groups, that we hope carries something of the sacred into the rest of our lives. Christian contemplation is the practice of seeing the sacred in all of life, and connecting ourselves and others in the Christ’s love. A contemplative life, then, becomes prayer without ceasing, mission without ceasing, worship without ceasing, love without ceasing. Through contemplation, we awaken to our discipleship.


Kevin Hershey is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a former therapist, specializing in Contextual Therapy with couples and families. He is a New Monastic, a Contemplative, a Friend of the Northumbria Community, and is always at work becoming what Brother Wayne Teasdale and Dr. Christine Paintner call a “monk in the world.” In 2015, he founded Companions on the Way, a new monastic community which focuses on looking at how Jesus teaches us to be in relationship with one another, and practices this way of relating in the world. It draws its identity as a “School of Love” from the language of Brian McLaren, and is part of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities Initiative of the PC(USA).

The Business of Making Active Disciples

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

by Shelley Donaldson

What does leadership development in the church look like to me?

In the fall of 2001, a couple of pastor-mentor-friends convinced me I should work for the Calvin Center just outside of Atlanta, GA. I liked kids and I loved being outside. I was also going through a rough patch with my faith and just happened to be looking for a job while going to college. I needed a paycheck, so I signed up. Looking back now, I realize that at no point would anyone ever have been able to explain to me the 9+ years of leadership development that I would undergo and that would transform how I see the world and interact with God’s creation. I’ve tried really hard to carry these skills with me throughout my ministry since and use them to inform my decision making.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you can’t have good leadership if you aren’t someone who is helping to develop new leaders. Constantly. It’s part of God’s big hamster wheel that we should all find ourselves on. I realized I was running on that wheel after becoming an associate camp director and eventually a solo director where I was hiring college students and helping to create an atmosphere of nurturing new leaders. Good leadership and leadership development keeps going. You can’t just hone your own leadership abilities and be a true leader without being able to share with and impart that leadership onto others because that’s not how the gospel would do it.

I know it’s cliché, but in Matthew 28 we get our fundamental instructions for leadership development: to go and make disciples. When Jesus tells his followers to make disciples, it’s not only to make the world believe, but to believe and act on that belief. Which means, if we are to make disciples, then we’re meant to make active disciples who in turn go on to make more active disciples and so on. We are meant to make leaders who go on to make other leaders and so on. We are meant to keep God’s hamster wheel spinning and we should all be on it in some shape, form or fashion.

Over the years, the idea of leadership development has become something of a hot topic in the church. When I attend conferences or large gatherings, I often hear of special leadership events that a particular event or group is hosting, most often it’s an invite-only event. If your invite-only event is one that is intentional about bringing to the table people who have typically been left in the margins when it comes to leadership, then great. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Most of the time, we see the same groups or individuals at these events and we see the same people leading them. It’s frustrating and its exclusive.

Sure, some really good leadership development is done hosting intentional workshops for a hand-picked, select group of people. But the best leadership development happens when we figure out how to embrace God’s hamster wheel and start developing our leaders (aka disciples) who will bring others onto the wheel, not just the few deemed worthy or because they know the right person with some sway. I’m talking moving beyond the pulpit and chancels and moving into the pews and out into the streets.

Here’s the secret that we don’t want to talk about when it comes to leadership development in the church: like so many other parts of our world, you have to have a foot in the door to be a part of leadership and to get that development. And to get your foot in the door often requires an access to privilege and power that, let’s be honest, we don’t often like to share or give up. We’ve essentially separated making active disciples and developing leaders. And we wonder why the church is shrinking?

I had privilege that helped get me in the doors I needed to walk through to get good leadership development. I wasn’t looking to develop my leadership skills, but I did because of others. I was a young white woman from the suburbs, I had good people looking out for me, and my boss (who turned out to be a close friend for life) was one heck of a mentor who was never afraid to call me out when I did something wrong, tell me no when I’d always heard yes, and refuse to coddle me when I failed and acted immature about it. The leadership development I got from my time at the Calvin Center didn’t just help to create a leader in the church, it helped to create an active disciple. It did that for me and so many others because they weren’t interested in being selective, they were interested in developing each person who walked through those cabin doors because they were in the business of keeping that hamster wheel running and making active disciples to run it.

My leadership development came, in many parts, because of my own privilege. Sure, I was smart, likeable, and had a lot of energy for life and God’s church, I still do. But, there were people who were able to help place me in a position where I could blossom. Which is why the skills I developed in leadership are at the core of who I am, because I can’t take any of it for granted. I was introduced to people who helped shape who I am and my abilities, and I sincerely hope that we can change that model from getting leadership development for those with privilege or those with access, to making sure it’s available to all God’s people, especially the ones with little to no access.

We have to be in the business of making active disciples of everyone, not just the select. Then we’ll be in the business of leadership development that will keep that hamster wheel spinning. It won’t just affect the church, but it will affect the world. The church should be at the forefront of leadership development, it should be at the core of who we are. Which means it can’t be exclusive but intentionally open to everyone. Change the exclusive invites from a “+1” to a “bring all your friends and some random folks as well with you.” Leadership development shouldn’t be for the ones that those in places of power deem worthy, but for those whom God has deemed worthy.


Shelley Donaldson is a candidate for ordained ministry in the PCUSA. She works in Chicago at Fourth Presbyterian Church working with youth and leading missions to Cuba. She is a contributing story writer for WJK’s new book Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible, as well as the Youth Cartel’s 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers. She is also a founding member of Creation Lab. You can find her work on her blog, The Travelling Theologian: Traveling with 2 L’s Because I Can.

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

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 Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Building Evaluative Muscles

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

Two years ago at our annual session retreat, congregational leaders at Fourth Presbyterian Church discerned God was calling us to make discipleship a priority in the life and mission of our particular congregation. We decided it was time to intentionally focus on nurturing and growing our sense of God’s claim on our lives and life together, as well as our ability to articulate the difference that claim made in our lives. As a congregation, we have always felt strongly called to work for God’s justice and compassion in the world, but we have not always been able to articulate why. The session decided it was time to help all of us give words as to why we did what we did. It was time to help our folks be able to describe what made us, as a congregation, different from other non-profit agencies who did similar community outreach work. We felt God was challenging us to work on a deeper sense of discipleship.

As we continued to wrestle with what that meant (including trying to define discipleship!), we began to get stuck on how we would know if we were making progress. What were the metrics we could use to see if we were actually doing what we said we felt called to do? We knew that we could not just use the church’s operating budget or our worship attendance numbers to tell us if the discipleship priority was taking hold. Both financial health and attendance statistics provide useful data, but neither thing captures “success” – at least not in terms of ministry. And yet, those kinds of quantitative metrics were all we had.  

I was always reminded of this point whenever elders who had rolled off session would want to hear how things were going. “How are we doing with our discipleship priority?” they would ask. “Are you seeing some shifts occur?” Being a preacher, I always came up with something to say, but I also felt inadequate to describe the progress I saw taking place. I had a variety of anecdotes I could tell them, in which I could describe how I saw our baptisms shining brightly, but I did not know if that “counted,” in terms of metrics… until NEXT Church launched the Cultivated Ministry project.

Our session took the Cultivated Ministry method out for a spin this past June at our last annual retreat. I will admit it was a little rocky in the beginning. Some of my folks needed to be convinced that the traditional ways of measuring healthy ministry via budgets and attendance were actually meant to be inputs rather than outputs. In other words, a church’s financial resources and people resources are means to an end and not the “end” itself (hint—the end is God’s complete reconciliation of the cosmos). It is a shift to recognize that people’s stories of transformation are just as valid as how many people showed up. We have been counting for so long that other ways of describing progress can feel suspicious or threatening. However, the more we practiced broadening our vision as to what/how to measure “successful” ministry, the more it began to feel right. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten started.

Our next steps will be to keep practicing the Cultivated Ministry method with small, well-defined ministry programs. It is still difficult to measure how we are doing regarding deepening our discipleship, but we can become more adept at these new metrics if we start with smaller tasks. For example, we can use this method to see how our new family neighborhood small groups are working  Or we could use this method to look at a new mission trip. Or we could use this method to evaluate our session meetings or our trustee meetings. There are a myriad of different ways we could implement Cultivated Ministry metrics as we build our evaluative muscles.  

I am thankful for the group who gave this work all of their time, energy, imagination, and love. I get excited to imagine how this different way of measuring healthy ministry might take root in the congregation I serve. It feels faithful and interesting. And I believe it has the potential to keep us from getting too comfortable or stagnant. The practice of Cultivated Ministry will help us grow deeper in our discipleship and more articulate about how our faith impacts our life. We are going to keep working at it, undoubtedly messing up and trying again, as we try to figure out how to scale it for our different ministries and mission. I hope other congregations will join us in the experimenting!


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

Being Generous

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 David Loleng

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)  

“Generosity is something we want for you, not from you.” I think the church needs to take this phrase to heart.

In their book The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, Christian Smith and Hillary Davidson state: “Generosity is paradoxical. Those who give, receive back in turn. By spending ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own standing.” They go on to show that generosity positively affects our happiness, health, life purpose, and personal growth. Generosity is at the heart of discipleship and human flourishing. But here is the paradox: although generosity is good for us, generosity is often elusive in our churches.

How, then, can our churches form generous disciples? We tend to turn to technical fixes and best practices as the answer. Things like narrative budgets, e-giving, revamped stewardship campaigns, and talking about stewardship throughout the year are important and impactful, but I believe they are not enough to bring about lasting transformation in people and in the culture of the church. The real paradigm shift is from focusing on funds development to people development. To put it another way, we need to measure our success not by the quality of our programs but by the quality of our people.

I believe the way to form generous disciples of Christ is by creating habits and practices that will truly begin to change our beliefs and behaviors. It’s not just the occasional generous act but sustained practices, disciplines and a lifestyle of generosity that will have a transformative and lasting effect on individuals and our faith communities.

My question is this: what are some spiritual practices that will help cultivate generosity and Christ centered stewardship in the lives of those in our churches? I want to briefly share two spiritual practices that have become important for me recently as I have thought about how to be a generous steward of my, time, talent and resources.

First is the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Simplicity helps us to let go of our inordinate attachment to things (possessions, experiences, achievements) and our insatiable desire for more.  It is uncluttering our lives of excess and practicing things like frugality, contentment, thankfulness, and graciousness.

Richard Foster describes the importance of simplicity in his book Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World. He writes, “The complexity of rushing to achieve and accumulate more and more threatens frequently to overwhelm us… Christian simplicity…brings sanity to our compulsive extravagance, and peace to our frantic spirit. It allows us to see material things for what they are – goods to enhance life, not to oppress life. People once again become more important than possessions…it is the Spiritual Discipline of simplicity that gives us…a strategy of action that can address this (poverty and hunger) and many other social inequities.” Simplicity helps us to re-calibrate our lives back toward God and God’s will. It frees us to be more generous with our money and resources and become more mission-focused.

The second is connected to simplicity. It is creating margin in life. As Dr. Richard Swenson describes in his book Margin, it is like the margins on a piece of paper: there is no text on the top, bottom, and sides; just empty space. As James Bryan Smith writes in his book The Good and Beautiful God, “We add so much to our schedules that we have no ‘margin,’ no space for leisure and rest and family and God and health.”

Creating margin means uncluttering our schedules, our time, and our lives. When we have more margin in our lives, we can be more generous with our time and our talents. Creating margin positively affects our relationship with God and others, our health, and our ability to join in Christ’s mission in our communities and world.

The spiritual disciplines of simplicity and margin not only help to cultivate a culture of generosity, but help form people in our churches who are growing as generous disciples of Jesus Christ, with a greater impact on our communities and world.


David Loleng is the Director of Church Financial Literacy and Leadership at the Presbyterian Foundation (PCUSA). He is the co-author of the Engage (Gospel, Discipleship, Mission) Curriculum. Loleng is leading the effort to assemble a body of educational materials and tools for effective financial church leadership and administration and make them available to both pastors and lay leaders. Loleng most recently served as Associate for Evangelism in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.