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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.

Change and God’s Future

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

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

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

Hospitality, Manna and New Pastors

By Glen Bell

The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “In the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.”

In the morning, there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another,

What is it?

Exodus 16:12-15

We live in the worst of times. The so-called Islamic State advances across the Middle East, and Ebola ravages West Africa. Wages are stagnant, and millennials worry they will be a permanent economic underclass. Our Western church has lost its way, and the spiritual but not religious search for a word of hope.

We live in the best of times. Beyond the spotlight, global democracy is expanding. Unemployment continues to drop, and the value of American firms remains strong. The church grows rapidly in Asia and Africa, as thousands discover the great Good News of Jesus Christ.

photo credit: cbmd via photopin cc

photo credit: cbmd via photopin cc

What story will we tell? What song will we sing?

Page after page, the Scriptures declare God’s deliverance, even through the worst of times. Amid oppression, God promises a new day. In the wilderness, God guides. In every moment, the Lord saves.

Sometimes we are not able to recognize God’s salvation at first. We ask, “What is it?” Only when we recall the journey, bring to mind God’s faithfulness, and place our trust in God’s promises can we tell our story and sing our song.

The leaders of First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota are similar to so many others in the Reformed tradition. We recognize the many challenges facing the church, globally, nationally and locally. But we have been blessed and are determined to bless others.

This congregation has resolved to share encouragement and hospitality with new pastors from across the United States,

  • welcoming them to renewal and recreation in Sarasota,
  • pairing them annually with a gifted seminar leader, and
  • providing them with the opportunity to learn from a noted speaker and teacher.

Pastors from Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Mississippi, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Florida have been participants the first two years. They come with hope and dreams, concerns and questions. Here they have the opportunity to pray and ponder, to reflect and recreate, to build friendships with one another for years to come.

On this journey, even in those moments when the wilderness presses close and our destination seems far, far away, we sing of God’s goodness. We tell the story of salvation. We trust our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We welcome and encourage and nurture.

This question is pressing for each of us:

  • How will we offer hospitality and encouragement to growing pastors, in order that the next church may grow and flourish?
  • What are the particular gifts that our congregation can offer?

As we trust the Holy, what story will we tell? What song will we sing? What is it?

Glen Bell is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida. He is a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Blessing Those Who Come after Us

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around leadership cohort groups that sustain people in ministryHave ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. To see all that has been written on this topic, go to the blog main page.

By Glen Bell

palm treeAlmost two years ago this summer, I was called to become pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota, Florida.

Among my friends, the jokes started almost immediately.

Friends described Sarasota as “God’s waiting room.” Those who had previously lived here warned me about the octogenarians on the highways and the long lines in area restaurants for dinner at 4:30 pm.

They were right. No less than one third of my friends and neighbors in Sarasota are 65 years old or over. That compares nationally, according to the US Census, with only 13% of the American population who are retirement age or above.

“Land Ho!” is a recently released film, written and directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, chronicling an adventuresome trip by two older adults. The two protagonists are Colin and Mitch, longtime friends. Manohla Dargis, in a review in the New York Times, writes this: “In too many movies, older characters are repellently cute and kooky. Colin and Mitch are far more robust. They are healthy and solidly, lustily present, despite the occasional hitch in their step.” Those are the friends and neighbors I am encountering in Sarasota – full of life, healthy, solid, recognizing their limitations, but undaunted and determined.

These are important experiences for us all, for Sarasota reflects our Presbyterian Church (USA). Nationally, the Presbyterian tradition we love and serve is composed of weekly worshipers of whom 42-43% are 65 or over.

What can we learn in Sarasota? What might this congregation teach us?

From the moment I encountered First PC, Sarasota, I discovered a rich welcome. The church focuses on biblical hospitality and excels at embracing newcomers. A variety of participants, including elders, deacons, and retired pastors, are deeply rooted in the ethos of Presbyterian life. They have reached the “integrity” stage that Erik Erikson posits as the capstone of human life, and in their maturity, they prioritize the nurture of others and the growth of those who follow them. These values are reflected in the rich programming for youth and children, as well as a highly-regarded preschool.

In addition to these strengths, walking along the beach at sunset my wife and I personally confirmed that Sarasota is breathtakingly beautiful.

We put all that together in our new Pastoral Development Seminars. Each year, we now invite a group of new pastors, in their first several years of ministry, to come to Sarasota for five days in the fall and five days in winter. Here they reflect on their ministry setting and preaching, with the insights of a seminar leader (Tim Halverson last year and Tom Walker this year). They rub elbows with a scholar, preacher or leader from the Presbyterian tradition (Gradye Parsons and Brian Blount last year; Dean Thompson and Cynthia Rigby this year). They relax and discover friends in this beautiful place.

Through the rich hospitality of this congregation, these young pastors grow and develop and enjoy one another.

Following our first year, one participant wrote,

“I left Sarasota feeling energized and excited. I could not be more grateful.”

Another commented,

“This is the best continuing education experience I have had in ministry.”

There is nothing very unique about this program. Across the United States, Presbyterian congregations and organizations host a variety of opportunities to nurture new ministers. A number, like Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, offer a two-year residency for seminary graduates. Others, like First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, have recently embarked on financial campaigns to fund and sustain such efforts. Still others, like Second Presbyterian Church, Roanoke, provide guided experiences for a group of young pastors for one or two weeks each year. The Synod of Lincoln Trails and a number of PC(USA) seminaries have years of productive tradition in forming recent seminary grads. NEXT sponsors lively and life-giving national gatherings and other opportunities that are especially attractive to young pastors and elders.

The common dynamic is this: We Presbyterians are people of energy and imagination. Many of us have a rich background over many decades, and are eager to bless those who come after us. We are healthy and solidly present. Some of us are a bit older than our neighbors. In light of all that, what can each of us do to serve and nurture new pastors?

This opportunity demands our creativity. We need not be constrained by the size or circumstance of our congregation; what matters is not the size or funding level of the programs we may imagine and fashion, but rather the depth of our intention and commitment.

Sustaining new pastors is worth our very best.

I was delighted to welcome the first group to Sarasota, seeing the ways our congregation was blessed by hosting them, witnessing the opportunity for the participants both to grow and to relax.

But the greatest gift came several weeks later, when I saw a social media post in which all the new pastors were Skypeing together, continuing to encourage and pray with each other.

  • Can you and I create lively new opportunities to bless new pastors?
  • Can we offer vital gifts, with deep dedication, to those who come after us?
  • Can we plug into and support programs that nurture young ministers?

For each and all of us, so be it.

Glen Bell is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, FL and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. 

photo credit: Douglas Brown via photopin cc