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In Search of Sabbath

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 Adriene Thorne

I am sore afraid that the ruling elders in my church are working two jobs, at least – the one they get paid to do and the unpaid one they do to the glory of God. Too often, church looks like their second job – their second job with long hours and lots of demands. While I am grateful for the working relationships I enjoy with dozens of dynamic, creative elders, I am also on a mission to reclaim sabbath for us all. I hope you will join me.

I began feeling nervous last fall when an elder in my church told me that when she and her husband retire at the end of this year, they would probably take a break from church. I murmured, “Oh, visiting family and friends? Traveling abroad?” She replied, “No, I think we will take a break from church because… maybe we’re tired?” She spoke in a little chipmunk voice with her hands in front of her face as though she thought I would smite her! She went on to share that she wanted a break from lying awake at night wondering if the boiler would work on Sunday morning. She needed a reprieve from coming to church and answering questions about the building, the insurance, and the new church carpet. She wanted to be free of the burdens of doing ministry in a 200-year-old building that had spilled into her life over the course of more than two decades of service. She was in search of a sabbath, and I couldn’t blame her. Just listening to the many responsibilities she carried out made me want to take a nap!

It isn’t just my elder, and it isn’t just my church. Over the past six months I’ve queried lay leaders from a few churches around the country who have shared with me both their satisfaction in serving and their joy in finally being done. Elders I spoke with thanked God their time of service had ended. Every. Single. One.

As I attend conferences and connect with ruling elders from all walks of life, I am reminded that I signed up for this work, that I trained for it, and that I love it. It is my calling and my job. I take a sabbath rest two days of nearly every week, but many of my elders work all week at their paying job and then work many evenings and all weekend at their church job. A colleague recently said to me that church work, done right, is life giving. Yes, that is true, but I am also listening to the stories and looking into the faces of elders who look anything but alive.

I realize that the language I’ve heard thrown around in ministry that says lay leaders are unpaid staff, is problematic. First and foremost, lay leaders are members of the body of Christ entrusted to the care of their pastor. They, as much as any member, and sometimes more than most, need the pastoral attention of their teaching elder. And if the only or primary conversations we are having with them are about budgets and attendance and volunteering more of their time, then something is wrong. Where and what is sabbath for ruling elders?

I’ve started a self-scheduling calendar for elders at my church. They can put themselves on my calendar for an agenda free tea date as often as they need one. Occasionally, I will invite one or two or several over for dinner with me and my family and say bring your partner and kids. Sometimes I’ll grab a glass of wine with an elder at a local bar after I’ve put my kid to bed, and always when we gather, I’m creating sabbath. The only rule is that church conversations are banned. Often, we laugh, share stories, and learn something new about one another, and for that hour, there are no demands on us to accomplish anything more than the tending of ourselves. My elders love pondering where God is in their lives right now and what it is their soul needs. The hour leaves us feeling loved and fed.

We are all slowly starting to come back to life at my church. It is imperfect, and we still do too much. September is already jam-packed, but things thin out by Reformation Sunday. The best part is that we are doing a better job of being on the lookout for Sabbath and asking the questions that make ministry possible and most importantly, life giving and restful.


Adriene Thorne serves as pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn in New York City where the community seeks to tell God’s story of love and justice in creative and transformative ways. Find her on Facebook at Adriene.Thorne.Minister, on Twitter at @AdrieneThorne and on Instagram at revadriene.

Just Getting Started

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 Andrew Kukla

In his writings and teaching, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh often tells an old Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

He uses this to talk about the dangers of habit-energy that keeps us dong the same things over and over again, often spinning our wheels in the process; the dangers of inner turmoil and busy-ness; and the dangers of forgetfulness. He stresses the need to stop. Calm. Rest. Heal.

Our own tradition gives us these same resources in the practice of Sabbath. The need, not the luxury, to stop. The need, not the luxury, to let the world turn without you. The need, not the luxury, of realizing our worth doesn’t lie in production. The need, not the luxury, to be idle and rest and abide in the presence of God’s good creation, free of agenda.

We have been over a lot in the last month that I hope is helpful for you as you prepare to become, or continue to be, an officer of the church. And this final post is supposed to be the most practical and give you further resources to equip you and your community on the ongoing journey of fulfilling God’s calling as a community of faith. But first I want us to stop and remember that if we are simply riding more horses, in more directions, with greater speed… we are helping no one.

More church does not make better disciples.

Sabbath remains a foundational resource of faithfulness — so lead in sabbath for God’s sake, for your sake, and to the benefit of your whole community. Let these ideas percolate in you, let them inspire in you, let them settle in you…and then take a big deep breath. Pray. Remember. Listen. Abide.

God has called you to the most monumental of tasks: being nothing more and nothing less than the Body of Christ in this time and your place. And yet… God already sees in you the gifts and abilities to accomplish this task well. Trust God by trusting yourself. And enjoy the ride. Your joy in leadership may just be the greatest gift of all, and to that end I leave you with these words that Eugene Peterson quotes from Phyllis McGinley in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

“I have read that during the process of canonization the Catholic Church demands proof of joy in the candidate, and although I have not been able to track down chapter and verse I like the suggestion that dourness is not a sacred attribute.”

Further Resources for Officer Training
The following resources were collected through various crowd-sourcing efforts. This list is barely scratching the surface of available options but will, I hope, help you make the next step in digging deeper into the transformative work of being a church leader.

The Book of Order
As a whole, even with the new form of government, the Book of Order is a long and winding document; but it holds great treasures and perhaps none better as a starting point than The Foundation of Presbyterian Polity. Once you collapse white space it’s only a dozen pages and a rich foundation of why we do what we do the way we do — and you could design an entire course around this section of the Book of Order itself.

The Book of Confessions
As with the Book of Order, we often neglect the richness of The Book of Confessions because taken as a whole it’s an overwhelming resource. But there are many ways to engage our confessional documents to feed our leadership. Two strategies: using excerpts of confessional statements to start discussion at the beginning of each meeting, and assigning different confessions to each officer and having them report back to the whole with a summary of context, primary message, and take-aways.

Ordination Questions
We hope everyone gets a chance to engage our ordination questions (found in the Book of Order) beyond answering them publicly during their ordination. Some congregations have found them a helpful way to engage training, doing a deep dive into them: “We always discover something we hadn’t heard in them before, and it often leads to very fruitful conversation. Especially around the confessions.”

Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers by Joan Gray
This is an old favorite. One church leader adds, “We read this every year. We love it for how she encourages officers to nurture their own spiritual life as a way to grow their gifts for leadership. It helps us to frame the work of the church with prayer and study. Her image of a sailboat church (one led by the Holy Spirit) as opposed to a rowboat church (one whose members decide on their own where they want to go and work themselves to exhaustion to get there) has been so helpful for our discernment.”

Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman
Friedman’s work is important, and multiple churches report using the book. The book as a whole can be too much to digest as one part of a larger training, so some recommend using this short video introduction: “It has helped the leaders I’ve worked with lead with more courage, make principled decisions even when it might stir conflict, and be better prepared to absorb anxiety in the church rather than fuel it.”

Making Disciples, Making Leaders by Steven Eason (author) and E. Von Clemans (lesson plans)
A very appreciated and well-worn book for many, specifically geared for the PC(USA); it has a ready-made leader copy for a four-session training course.

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana
I’m pushing this one, and it has nothing to do with having gone to seminary with MaryAnn…it has everything to do with the power of “yes, and….” Pick this one up, soak it up, and share it profusely.

The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on its Gifts by Luther Snow
A good application of asset-based community development theory to the congregational visioning process.

Cultivated Ministry (NEXT Church Resource)
Cultivated Ministry was developed to move away from old metrics of ministry (like membership numbers) without losing any sense of accountability or measurement of how we are progressing, and fulfilling’s the mission has God for us in the world.

Theoacademy
A project of the Synod of Mid-America. There are a growing number of great video resources for the life of the church including a thirteen-video series available on-line on ordered ministry that is great for the training of elders and deacons.

PCUSA Ruling Elder articles
An ongoing procession of articles put out through the Office of the General Assembly to nurture the leadership of Ruling Elders in our churches.

And lastly…let us never be done. Training for everything in life is never really over. We are in the constant play of practice-reflection-learning-new practice. Consider, if you do not already, adding a training aspect to every session meeting. We do so at FPC Boise under the name: Theological Imagination Session. And there are always new resources to continue to feed our imagination, our playful faithfulness, and our fearless failure to be the Body of Christ in this time and this place.

So what resources did we miss? What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments as we feed each other in the process of being fed by God’s Spirit that is alive and well and coaxing us onward every day.


andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

Leadership Potential Left on the Margins

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 Mathew Eardley

I sit at a lot of tables. And wear a lot of hats. Don’t you? They keep me busy. And it keeps me isolated. What I mean by “isolated” is that when I’m busy, I find it easier to do things myself, or ask those that are already deeply invested alongside me to do ‘it.’ This is unfortunate, though, because it leaves a lot of potential leadership in the margins.

This truth I live causes me to reflect on two important questions that every leader and leadership body should be asking.

  • Who has been included in leadership?
  • Whose voices, perspectives, and insight are not being heard?

In our current world of nominating committees, diverse representation, and overbooked schedules, it is easy to default to the status quo for what leadership is and who is involved. It is a trap that congregational leadership can easily fall into: that leadership starts and ends with church officers. In reality, leaders are constantly being formed around me – and you – each and every day by example, whether it be in the church, home, classroom, workplace, or anywhere (and everywhere) else. That leadership potential is often lost by neglect. How can we take seriously the task of forming new and broader leadership within our congregations?

I submit to you that one area where there is lost opportunity is “Intergenerational Leadership”. It seems to be an ethereal, confusing, and somewhat overwhelming topic. How to do it? Who’s qualified? Who’s not? What can people do? What should they do? What is the organization’s or community’s needs?

I am fortunate (privileged, even) to have been invited into leadership positions since I was young. It wasn’t always invitational, however. There were times when I had to elbow my way into the room or around the table. Other times, I was rejected for an opportunity I thought I was perfectly suited for me. And this is still the case. Why do I tell you this? I say this because I don’t think I am alone. Engaging many people in leadership, no matter the identifier or demographic, is a challenge for most people, organizations, and communities. In the words to come, I don’t claim to have ‘the answer’ or ‘the way’ but I instead hope to suggest to you where I have felt most invited and how we might choose to think about and engage others in our respect roles, organizations, and communities.

My philosophy to address this is simple; first, understand the needs and opportunities for leadership and engagement and, to follow that with, observation and invitation.

Understand the Needs

Each of our communities have needs to be filled. They are everywhere, from an under-filled committee, open session seat, volunteers in children or youth ministry, etc. You could probably list at least five off the top of your head. Take a mental note of these, know them, think about them, reflect on what would strengthen or add to each of them. Put simply, be aware of the need. Really, it’s that simple.

Observe

Look closely at those around you being attentive to their gifts, skills, and abilities. They may not be perfect or completely refined (who’s are?), but simply inherent and evident. And I don’t mean to say that you only observe those you like or those that seem to fit a stereotype, it means to be aware and attentive of everyone, no matter their age, demographic, or other identifier. Ask yourself, “Who do I see that could do this?” As I have reflected on that question I have become more aware of the dept and breath of the gifts and talents present in our community. As an aside, I think it is important to call these out and celebrate them as often as possible. It is empowering to be affirmed.

Invite

I imagine you know where this is heading. If we are keenly aware of the needs which are present and have made note of the gifts, talents, and abilities we observe in others it becomes easy to begin inviting a diverse and capable group of people to consider engaging in the capacity that fits them best. This could mean inviting them into a particular role or laying a few options on the table. The danger is to type-cast and assume. Too often I hear stories of people only being invited into roles that match their profession. That isn’t fair. Maybe that is where they want to serve, but this is the challenge of the previous two bullets. Are we taking the easy route of only asking “teachers” to teach the VBS or LOGOS bible class? Or are we only inviting the musicians to be on the Worship Arts committee? The invitation can be daunting, but done well and in an invitational way it can be empowering, rewarding, and transformational (ironic, right?).

It sounds so simple but can be challenging. I am not good at this. I continue to wrestle and try to practice this. Living into this philosophy isn’t designed for one person – the pastor – to do alone. It takes the entire community, particularly those in leadership (all leadership, not just committee chairs or seated officers), to do this. Think of the power that comes from a session (let alone an entire congregation) noticing, lifting up, and celebrating a community’s gifts, talents, and abilities. Add to that the personal invitation into leadership and I think something special can happen. I suggest that, when done right, we get away from labels (youth elder, female deacon, etc.) and are flexible and empowering of everyone in the community. I hope you will join me in understanding our respective community’s needs, observing those around you, and extending the invitation to leadership.


Mathew Eardley works at Jitasa, a company in Boise, Idaho that provide accounting services to non-profit agencies. He is a graduate of Whitworth University and a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Boise. Mathew has served on committees at every level of PC(USA) including recently completing service as a member of the Way Forward Commission of the General Assembly.

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.

Is This the Best We Can Do?

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 Paul Hooker

When I was young in ministry, the session of First Presbyterian of Kingsport, TN where I was associate pastor would debate some important matter until it appeared everything had been said that needed saying. Then, just before the moderator called for the vote, from the back of the room, Ernie Blackard would raise his hand, and when recognized, ask, “Mr. Moderator, I’d just like to be sure: Is this the best we can do for Christ and his Church?” There was, as I recall, never any answer to that question but silence. But there was always a silence, during which we all asked ourselves whether the vote we were about to cast served any purpose other than the advancement of our own interest or agenda. Ernie is long dead now, but his question echoes in my head every time I prepare to cast a vote.

The Book of Order names the order of ministry to which ruling elders are called, “the Ministry of Discernment and Governance” (G-2.03). I think the polity gets that just about right. The first and primary function of the ruling elder is that of discernment. The word comes about as straight and un-Anglicized from the Latin discernere as it is possible to do: “to separate, set apart, divide, distinguish, perceive.” The polity is even clear what, precisely, ruling elders are to discern: they are “not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ” (F-3.0204). The will of Christ. Not the shrewdest business decision. Not the action that comports with my pre-established preferences. Not the decision that places me on the right side of political favor. We are called to discern — to separate out all that stuff — until all that is left is the one that reflects the will of Christ.

It’s only after discernment that one gets to governance, the business of leading and guiding the people and institutions entrusted to the session’s care. Governance is always secondary and subsequent to discernment, because it depends on discernment. Even the title given to the order reflects this: ruling elder. The mission of the ruling elder is as old as Scottish Presbyterian polity. The Second Book of Discipline (1620) is clear that the task of the ruling elder is to measure the faithfulness of the congregation “according to the rule of the Evangel” — that is, according to the will of Christ as revealed in Scripture. This, by the way, is where the term “ruling” in ruling elder comes from.

I refuse to pull punches here. This means that every ruling elder must be a scholar of Scripture. It also means that it is the task of every teaching elder is to facilitate the session’s scholarship. The best sessions and pastors I know are the ones who take that responsibility seriously and spend time at session meetings in study, conversation, and prayer around the relationship between Scripture and the business at hand. Sessions that fail to do so, or that are convinced that they simply don’t have time to do so, are failing in their duty. That indictment, I fear, would convict more than a few of our sessions, including most of the ones I led when I served as pastor and moderator. Shame on me. Shame on us all.

When the members of the Form of Government Task Force (of which I was one) were making presentations to presbyteries in advance of the vote on the then-proposed Foundations and Form, we were fond of saying that the role of the ruling elder was a spiritual function, not to be confused with being a member of the board of directors of a small non-profit corporation. The best preparation for being a ruling elder is not an MBA (although many fine elders have one) but a sense of the mystery of God, not a head for figures so much as a heart for the flock. Ruling elders are shepherds before they are CEOs.

It will be argued that the church, as an institution, has certain needs in common with most businesses, and that some business sense is needful as the church makes its way in the world. Probably. It will be argued that the church’s financial ship will run aground on the rocks of receivership if there aren’t a few people who can read a balance sheet. Conceded. But let it never be said that those voices are the last voices to be heard in debates about the wellbeing of the people of God. Grant rather that the last voice is that of Ernie Blackard, wondering whether this is the best we can do for Christ and his Church. And let there be, in the silence that follows, a moment of discernment.


Paul Hooker is Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  A teaching elder, Paul has served in parish ministry, as a presbytery executive and stated clerk, and has extensive experience in writing and interpreting the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He blogs original poetry at http://www.shapeandsubstance.com.

A Quest of Fearless Failure

by Andrew Kukla

As a pastor, there are certain questions you get very used to being asked. Not the fun questions I don’t tire of answering, like “why does the Apostles’ Creed say ‘descended into hell?’” from which I usually embark on a conversation about radical grace. No, I’m talking about routine questions revisited because people don’t like the answer you give, questions that get you jaded and…worn. One of those for me is “can we get more training?” It’s a question that comes from a new member, a Sunday school teacher, a communion server, a deacon offering homebound communion, a new ruling elder; it’s a question that comes regularly and from all corners of the church. And the question is genuine. I remind myself of that every time.

But I think the question is often the wrong question.

Don’t get me wrong ― I’m not adverse to training. However, I can no longer abide training as downloading data to empty vessels. The problem with training people in very particular trivia that apply to something that they don’t regularly do is that it just doesn’t stick. Why would it? It’s not that it isn’t relevant at all, it’s that its relevant to something so rare that when you finally need it you have long forgotten it. And much of the ins and outs of our polity has absolutely no correlation to the everyday life of our church leaders. So, what is worth taking time to train for?

This gets us to one of the hard realities of life in any job formation/training question: you won’t know what you don’t know, and therefore need to learn, until you get in there and muck it up. You are going to have to make some mistakes. You are going to have to wrestle with applying information to life before you can sort what parts of the information are even helpful. There is an old line I love: failure is a diagnostic tool.

If I could train people in only one thing, it would be learning to fail well.

And this is the real rub. People don’t want to make mistakes. For all our wonderful rich theology of grace, we still imagine ― more often than we admit (like all the time) ― that mistakes at church feel like they have eternal consequences. And so, we are terrified of doing things “wrong” and doing things “unsuccessfully” and we simply don’t trust ourselves to lead.

This is the real question I think people are asking? Its not more training per se, but “how do I trust myself with this task I see as vitally important and consequential?” What absolutes can you tell me that will give me the confidence to believe I’m doing it right? What information can I jot down on a piece of paper so that that this paper will lead me when I don’t trust myself to do the job? The answer to that is that I cannot… and I will not. The starting point to all of this needs to be, “You will be wrong, you will fail (as will everyone else). Get over it, and then we can get started.”

When we engage in training, what I want to do is less about teaching information and rules and more about freeing our imagination… to remind people that our job is to listen and wrestle with our calling as this small part of the Body of Christ at this time and in this place… and imagine that we can see what God is seeing for us and with us. That constantly doing this task allows us to risk the church in daring to make that imagination come alive in what we say and do together here, at home, and everywhere in our community. That’s what I want us to do…and to train for that? We need to unlearn as much as we need to learn; we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, rather than the easy or typical questions; and we need to be playful as much as studious.

Ideally… we might even manage both.

So, for the next month, for all that we are talking about officer training, let us remember that we are not trying to fill up church leaders full of things they need to know. We are hoping that together, through prayer, study, fellowship, and mission, we are falling in love with God more deeply ― day by day. Let us spark our collective imagination as a bunch of church leaders to think about what it means to embark upon a quest of fearless* failure as we endeavor to make God’s calling on us come alive in flesh and bones.

In the next month we will focus on what I’m calling the three tasks of imagination:

Feeding our Imagination: Exegeting our World View
Enabling Fruitful Imagination: Cultivating a Space for Fearless* Failure
Focusing Our Imagination: Remembering Our Goal

I believe this is the role of church leaders: less officers of the rule of law than those who blaze trails the Spirit guides them to, encouraging others to follow. And yes… there are some ancient, old, and contemporary guides in how to travel those trails that will be helpful ― Books of Order and personnel manuals ― but let those be tools, and not masters, of our task. The world needs people alive with God’s imagination far more than it needs a plethora of people steeped in by-laws. And while I do not believe that’s an either/or scenario, I do know where I want to start and what needs to stay front and center.

Without further ado…let’s find the second star to the right and go straight on till morning!

*by fearless I do not mean we won’t have fears. I’m a pretty fearful person. What I mean by fearless is that fear will not be our master. We will overcome our fears, not the other way around.


andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

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.

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.  

Officer Training for the NEXT Church

by Tom Are, Jr.

They said “yes,” which is no small thing. They had been asked to serve as Elders in my congregation… a three year commitment. It would mean a lot of meetings, more than a few conversations, a growing “to-do list” and perhaps some debate. They would be asked to provide leadership for the church in a time when it is hard to discern the best direction to move. So, they would need training: Officer Training.

Officer training needn't be like this.

Officer training needn’t be like this.

They had ordination questions to answer about Confessions and doctrine and would make commitments to do nothing less that work for the reconciliation of the world! That’s a pretty big job.

When I began teaching Officer Training over twenty years ago, I was pretty clear regarding the purpose. They needed to know about these Confessions they would promise to be guided by. They needed to be able to articulate a doctrine of scriptural authority and confess scripture as holy revelation. They needed to know about synods and commissions and that serving in “governing bodies” meant they would go to Presbytery.

It is a lot to learn; a lot to know. And to my pleasant surprise, because these were the types that would say “yes” to being an elder, they kept coming to officer training and telling me how “interesting” the classes were.

Mission accomplished, right?

Nope.

I blew it, to tell you the truth.

Where did I get the impression that being a disciple of Jesus was primarily a matter of knowing the right information? Oh, I know, we don’t say it that way. We say it’s important to have good theology. Or believe in essential doctrine. Some might even say it’s a matter of knowing the truth.

I like knowing the truth, when it can be known. My shelves are filled with theology, both the formal and informal kinds. Doctrine matters to me. But, when Jesus was asked what’s the most important thing in our lives, he didn’t say, I have some things I want you to think about. He said, love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was essentially relational.

I have changed my mind, my heart and my ministry. The church is not the church because we think the right things. We are not the church because we have found the right language to describe the difference Jesus makes in the world. Jesus does not come simply into our heads. The truth is, he doesn’t come into our hearts either….that’s far too narrow. He comes into our relationships.

So, in Officer Training we still gather around the scriptures and the Confessions but it’s not simply to gain information. It is to discover a new lens through which we learn to see ourselves and one another. After all, our primary offering and witness to a hurting world is not information we have, but love we give. It was Jesus who said, “They” shall know that you belong to me by your love for one another. Now in Officer Training in addition to learning doctrine, they learn to be a friend among their colleagues in ministry.

It’s not rocket science—the truth is, my approach to Officer Training might not seem any different than before if you weren’t paying attention. We just spend more time telling our own stories, praying together for the church and one another. We spend time exploring not only the Confessions of the saints who have gone before, but offering our own “confessions” working to find the language to describe what God is doing among us. It’s pretty simple, but it has made a difference.

We asked newly elected officers to share about their faith journey. They spoke of their grandmothers and youth leaders and Montreat. A few mentioned moments in worship and others mentioned the birth of children or trips in nature. But recently when some of these were asked the same question after they had completed their time of service: “Tell us about an important moment in your faith journey,” they mentioned serving on the Session together. That’s no small thing.


Tom AreTom Are is pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS and is co-chair of NEXT.