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The Makings of a Vital Partnership

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 Katie Harrington & Kelley Hames

Pastors and volunteers rely on one another to make ministry happen at local churches, but how does a successful relationship work? At Sardis Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rev. Katie Harrington, associate pastor for families, and Kelly Hames, a ruling elder, have a vital partnership that enhances the children’s ministry at their church.

Kelly: I have an exceptional relationship with my pastor. What makes it so special you may ask?

Photo from Sardis Presbyterian Church Facebook page.

I have given it a lot of thought and what continues to impress as unique and powerful is that my pastor appreciates my vocation: a divine call to God’s service in the church as a volunteer. She has a care for my gifts and a desire to help me use them to the glory of God… always nurturing me, gently leading me, and sometimes challenging me in the development of those gifts. She treats me as a partner in ministry worthy of respect and gratitude. This, in my opinion, is the true secret of our relationship and ability to work well together: we’re equal members of the same cohort with different calls to service, both necessary in the church.

For my part, I believe that elders are called to embrace new thoughts and ideas. The culture in which the church exists is constantly changing. The church should adapt if we want to be relevant now and into the future. There are so many opportunities these days for ruling elders to increase in knowledge and wisdom — through continuing education and associations, to name just two. We should take advantage of these resources so that, in partnership with pastors and staff, we can grow with and lead the church through all the tides of change.

Katie: One of the joys of serving the Church is discovering leaders in the church who not only make the ministry happen, but make it thrive. Kelly is one of those ruling elders at Sardis Presbyterian. With a passion for children’s ministry, and lots of experience and training, she makes church work exciting and inspiring. Our relationship enhances my ministry to the whole congregation, and our collective ministry to the children and parents of our church. We truly are partners, and inspire one another to do exciting new things for our families.

One of the challenges of ministry is finding volunteers — there are always holes to fill for Sunday School teachers, youth advisers, coffee hour hosts, ushers, greeters. You name a role in the church, and we need a volunteer to do it. The joy of ministry is when we ask someone to fill a role for whom that role becomes a vocation, a calling. And then, we teaching elders need to step back, trust and support their leadership, and give them lots of encouragement along the way, building a vital partnership that benefits all of God’s kingdom.


Kelly Hames is from Mobile, Alabama, where she earned an undergraduate degree in Accounting from the University of South Alabama, and in 2012 graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary with a Masters in Christian Education. In 2008 she was ordained as a Ruling Elder in the PCUSA. She now lives in North Carolina where she is a member of Sardis Presbyterian Church.

At various times she has served on Finance, Member Care, Missions, Worship, Children’s Christian Education, and Elementary Faith Formation Committees. She served as Interim Director of Children’s Christian Education at Matthews Presbyterian Church twice and in between that as the Director of Children’s Ministries at Indian Trail Presbyterian Church. She now thoroughly enjoys doing similar work as a volunteer at Sardis.

She lives with her disabled sister, their seven fur babies, likes to read, enjoys card-making and adores fantasy science fiction (especially dragons). She has a passion for children’s ministry and delights in her favorite role as Sunday School Teacher.

Katie Harrington is associate pastor for families at Sardis Presbyterian Church in Charlotte NC, where she enjoys serving families in every sense of the word family. Originally from Ohio, after 13 years, she has now settled into life in the South, assisted by marrying a native Charlottean and raising two southern kids!

Ready or Not, God Calls

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 Todd Muldrew

Just over two years ago I received a phone call from my pastor. She wished to know if I would serve as an elder. Honestly, it’s flattering when a leader at your church calls to ask if you’re willing to lead, too. But I was uncertain.

I was relatively new to Presbyterianism, but I was at a point in my relationship with my church where I was willing to step up when called. I spoke with my wife, a lifelong Presbyterian and elder. She explained the commitment to me, both in faith and in time. I was ready. I was excited.

Image from Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Because I was working often with our mission group, I assumed that is where I would plug in. But instead, I was asked to serve on the Christian Education and Formation committee – which includes a major focus on Sunday School. Now, I will admit to being a sporadic attendee to the Sunday School hour. But I said to myself, “This is where God must need me, so I will have faith that it’s the right place for me to be.” Then I went to my first meeting. By the end of that meeting it became clear that I was not just going to be on the committee – I was being asked to moderate the committee. My heart skipped a few beats. Who was I, as a part-time Sunday School participant, to moderate such an important part of the life of our church? Had there been a mistake?

The very next month, I was asked to give the devotional at our first meeting of the new session. In doing so, I found both guidance and peace. I discovered an article entitled “Wait Until You Get to the Corner.” It’s about a young pastor who is anxious and uncertain about what God has in store for him. An older pastor counsels him to walk the path before him with God, and not to worry about where the corner is or what’s beyond it until God reveals it. “Take the task He gives you gladly, let His work your pleasure be.” The author counsels us at the end: “There’s a line in a song, ‘I will go, Lord, where you want me to go.’ We might add, ‘And I will stay, Lord, where you want me to stay.’ And when we know that we are at a place and in a position because God has put us there, it takes a lot of stress out of it.”

It does indeed. God knows my strengths and my weaknesses, and yet here I am. I have faith that I am playing a role in God’s plan for our congregation, regardless of my inability to see around the corner.

As I took this leap of faith, the pastors and staff have been incredible partners in our work. Our children and youth programs are growing rapidly. This growth is wonderful, but it requires an evolution in our priorities and new commitments from our congregation.

One of the biggest challenges we face is awareness and buy-in. My first year, I took time to observe the process of this committee as I stepped gently into my role. Much decision-making seemed to take place with just the moderators and staff. When I listened to congregation members not privy to these meetings, I heard people complaining that such-and-such wasn’t happening in their child’s Sunday School – when, in fact, such things were happening. There was a disconnect between perception and reality.

This year, we have widened the circle of people who are involved in the committee’s work. Consulting with the pastors and staff, we have both solicited and personally invited interested and concerned members to our visioning meetings. This not only increases our awareness of the different needs of our members, but also gives us a conduit back to the congregation to explain what is going on – and why. The response has been rewarding, both in new ideas and greater understanding from the congregation.

I am prayerful that this momentum will continue to grow in the years to come. In the meantime, I remind myself “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!” Ps. 27:14. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for us next.


Todd Muldrew is member of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He gladly serves as an elder and moderator of the Christian Education and Formation Committee of the session.

Removing “Just” From our Vocabulary

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 Lisa Raymaker and Heather Newgreen

Growing up, pastors were always on a pedestal – set apart by God, always doing and saying the right things, seemingly without fault. As we get older, perspectives change. Set apart by God is still true, called for a special service is true… AND we are ALL set apart, we are ALL called for a special service. Responding to that call sometimes makes us feel inadequate.”But I’m just a layperson, how am I equipped to answer that call?” God doesn’t pay attention to the “just.” He/She gave each of us particular gifts and calls us to use them, regardless of whether we think we’re up to the task.

We’ve been able to believe this more because of our relationships with our pastor. He treats us as an equal in the body of Christ and encourages us to lead where we are called. In the beginning, it’s normal to feel that we need to be careful with our words, to put our best foot forward. We are in a church, after all. As we work together more as the hands and feet of Christ in our faith community and in our city, we can become more comfortable being our authentic selves, for better or worse. We have learned that it’s alright to question the way things are done; to speak the truth in love; to challenge each other to think, love, and serve more deeply. We learned that our thoughts and ideas are valued, and that the diversity of our thoughts is exactly what the church needs.

The relationship between a pastor and an elder can be summed up in one word: equals. We should be listening to each other, questioning each other, and trusting that we are capable to serve in the roles where God has placed us. When a congregation sees that the elders they elected are working in partnership with their pastor and not for their pastor, they can trust that their voices are being heard.

We believe there are three components to making a teaching elder and ruling elder partnership successful (of course, there are three – thank you, Triune God): always making room for the Holy Spirit to move and lead us, the teaching elder valuing and encouraging the work of lay leaders, and the ruling elder believing in and using their spiritual gifts. God’s call comes in many different forms and at different volumes. It can be a burning bush and it can be a whisper. It can be to serve as a pastor and it can be to use your skills as a business person to help lead your faith community into uncharted territory. If we listen, if we respond, if we work together as equals in the body of Christ, if we get rid of the “just” in our vocabulary, God will lead us to amazing places.


Lisa Raymaker is a member of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, and a ruling elder. After serving a 3-year term on the Session at Caldwell, she is chairing the Hope Committee, which is part of the new Gambrell Social Justice Fellowship program, and the Touchpoint Committee, which focuses on Caldwell’s outreach to the Charlotte LGBTQ community. Lisa works in the insurance industry and her husband, Patrick, is a musician.

Heather Newgreen was born and raised in the Presbyterian Church. She was ordained and installed as an Elder in 2009 and recently reinstalled in 2018. Heather currently serves as the Chair of Christian Formation where she oversees the education programs from infants to adults for Caldwell Presbyterian Church. She has remained an active volunteer in many of the church’s educational programs such as Godly Play, Youth Sunday School, and Confirmation. Though she holds a degree in music, Heather works for a non-profit that provides financing to small businesses. Her husband Kyle, and their two small children, James and Emily, are her greatest blessings.

Resisting Toxic Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katie Day

When I was asked to write about resisting and building immunity to toxic power, my first thought was, “I don’t know how.” After all, I participate daily in systems of toxic power as a white, heterosexual, cisgender middle class woman. Power and privilege have worked to my advantage more often than not, and while my participation in those systems is often unconscious, I cannot let myself off the hook and must acknowledge my complicity.

Power comes in many forms, in the world and in the church, and training officers to recognize and resist toxic power would benefit not just our sessions, but our neighborhoods, schools, and places of business.

When does power within the church become toxic? I’m sure if we were all in a room together talking about this, we would have as many opinions and definitions as there are voices. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define it like this: when power ceases to empower, equip, and liberate others and is used primarily to elevate the one or ones holding the power, to silence opposing voices, and to marginalize, undermine, or sow seeds of mistrust, it has become toxic. Toxic power can be seen within the church in individuals and groups who participate in unhealthy and unhelpful practices of control and domination, as well as in corporate participation in systems of oppression like white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.

For a scriptural example of what discerning toxic power might look like, consider Acts chapter 5, beginning in verse 12. The high priest at the Temple in Jerusalem was “filled with jealousy” (a clear indicator of toxicity) after witnessing the apostles healing the sick and converting new believers, and has the apostles arrested. The Pharisee Gamaliel spoke to the council these wise words:

“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. … I tell you … if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”

The high priest and his jealous rage did not prevail against the power of God at work in the early church. Toxic power is of human origin, born of jealousy, fear, hatred, complacency, or the idolatry of privilege and success. The power of God is still at work in the church, even today, and it is on that power that our leaders can always rely.

Toxic power will fail, in the end, but can and will cause a lot of harm before it fails. How might church leaders build up immunity to toxic power? Begin by creating awareness. We have to know there is a problem before we can start to work on it. Where do you see toxic power at play in your community?

And if you cannot see it, start researching and learning about the oppressive systems I’ve named above, seeking out resources and conversation partners from groups who are affected. Andrew’s initial post in this series comes into play here: church leaders will need to take a long, prayerful, and honest look at our congregations, without letting fear of failure cloud our vision. We confess in worship each week the ways we have failed to live into God’s calling, and failing to notice or to take action against toxic power in our community is part of that. Hiding our mistakes out of fear is not a healthy option.

When we create awareness of the problem of toxicity, when we can name it and learn about it, and discern where it exists in our congregation, we begin to build immunity to it. I am not a medical professional, but what I recall from high school science class is that immunity can comes after exposure to the harmful bacteria or virus; only after acknowledging our churches’ experiences with toxic power can we begin to resist it, trusting in the power of God that guides us, sustains us, redeems us, and calls us into new, healthy, non-toxic leadership practices.


Katie Day lives in Monterey, California, with her husband Kevin, son Elijah, dogs Lola and Mr. Wiggins, and cat Fred, and serves as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Monterey.

Treating Fear: Immunotherapy for Sessions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Kussmaul

I am not an allergist. I am not a shot-room nurse. I am an immunotherapy patient.

I am allergic to many things: dogs, cats, dust mites, molds, and a whole slew of grasses, trees, and pollens. I receive three injections per week: injections of the very things to which I am allergic. The hope is that, over time and with steady increases in the amount and concentration of serum, my immune system will adjust in a way that reduces the allergic response. I will still be allergic, but my allergies will not compromise my life and actions to the same degree.

So how does immunotherapy relate to governing bodies, particularly sessions?

When I think about the sessions with whom I have served and consulted, I see two shared traits: sessions, congregations and pastors are allergic to fear. Addressing this fear with principles from immunotherapy is effective in “treating” this allergy.

Fear, like my allergies, exists. Acknowledge its presence and impact.

  • Recognize symptoms: are we stuck, avoiding or side-stepping conversations, or continually postponing decisions? Symptoms of fear can present as a silent minority or as a silencing majority, they can be found in parking lot meetings, flurries of post-meeting emails, and in “people are saying” statements. Notice the symptoms.
  • Ask questions. “What are we not talking about?” “Whose voices are we not hearing?” “What other conversations are happening about _____?” “What is preventing us from taking action?” “Why does it feel like we are tip-toeing?”
  • Be direct: “Of what are we afraid?

Fear, like my allergies, can be identified. Be precise.

  • Identify the fears. There are probably more than one. Listing the fears provides clarity and facilitates movement. Listing the fears sparks conversation and feeds meaningful dialogue. The list becomes a starting place and a tool for reflection and assessment.
  • Be precise. It’s not enough to say “tree pollen.” We have to know if it is birch or cedar or pecan. It’s the same with an allergy to fear. It’s not enough to say “We are afraid of change.” Figure out the specifics. Drill down. Are we afraid of offending or disappointing someone? Afraid someone will leave? Afraid of taking a stand or being labeled the ______ church? Afraid we will decline beyond sustainability? Afraid of making a “bad” decision?

Fear, like my allergies, can be addressed. Take action.

  • Acknowledge the truth of inaction: there’s no such thing as “doing nothing” because “doing nothing” results in something. Gather information, discuss, discern, and do something. Action is almost always better than inaction. And when you discover a better way, simply regroup and head in that direction.
  • Speak for yourself. Practice, facilitate, and expect direct communication from others. Try “I am interested in your thoughts” when you hear “People are saying…” Or “To whom are you referring? I will speak with them directly.”
  • Agree on common language. Create a shared glossary (mental or actual) of words and phrases to explain the action, set expectations, and communicate the process. Be consistent. Establish an alternative narrative. Think about changing “We’ve always ______” to “In the past, we ____and now we ____.”

“Treating” fear, like my allergies, requires consistency and persistence.

  • Immunotherapy is most effective when you receive injections for three to five years. Even when ministry is busy or after reactions that require ice packs, hydrocortisone cream, and extra medicine. In those moments, I have to recall where I started, assess my improvement, celebrate my progress and remember: it takes time for an immune system to adjust how it reacts. It is the same with sessions, congregations, and pastors. “Treating” fear requires consistency and persistence. Even during Advent and Lent. Especially during times of heightened congregational anxiety.
  • Notice where you have responded to fear more effectively. Look at that original list of fears and celebrate the progress you are making. Embrace your role as pastor-encourager. Highlight success. Point to growth. Remember: it takes time for a session, congregation, or pastor to adjust how they respond to fear.

Fear, like my allergies, will never completely go away.

  • I will never be free of allergies. Particular seasons of the year will always be more challenging. While I hope I progress to the point of not needing daily medicine, I feel certain my medicine cabinet will always contain Zyrtec, Singular, and Benadryl for the times I need extra support.
  • There will always be particular topics about which sessions, congregations, and pastors will need extra support. This support may look like reconnecting with all or part of this process. It may look like inviting a colleague or consultant to watch, listen, and offer input. And it may be as simple as reading Scripture: Joshua 1:1-9, Psalm 27, Isaiah 41:1-20 & 43 or any of the countless occurrences of the phrase “Fear not!”

Last week was an easy immunotherapy week: no reaction. This week required an ice pack. This is the reality of immunotherapy. Treating allergies, whether dust-mites or fear, is a process. It takes time. And as my favorite shot-room nurse says, “Slow and steady wins the allergy race.”


Katherine Kussmaul is the pastor of St Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC and is a graduate of The Aquinas Institute of Theology, Duke Divinity School and The College of Wooster.

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.