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Worship Outside the Box

by Katy Stenta

“Worship outside the box” is a blog series meant to explore the myriad of ways we find and experience God. To me, worship is all about accessing God. God may be omnipotent, ever-present and everywhere at once, but that doesn’t mean we always feel like we have access to God.

Worship services are, in theory, designed to provide a variety of access points to God through speech and silence, companionship and meditation, singing and listening to music. But church happens other times too: in my church’s parking lot, during the free playgroup in our building, during conversations with AA members who are hanging around the church. One of my favorite experiences of church was the More Light Presbyterians reception at the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering, which happened to be the very day that LGBTQ marriage was ratified; a bar full of young Presbyterians celebrating the queer community is one of the rarest forms of church I have ever experienced.

Being Presbyterian, I am very conscious of those things that we prioritize in worship and what we think are the elements that automatically make worship happen: words and language are hugely emphasized. Pieces of paper or screens help us to stay decent and in order, and many things are recited by the corporate body together.

However, for those individuals who are visual, those have trouble reading/speaking/hearing, for those who have trouble standing, and those who have trouble sitting, there is much to be desired in a worship service. As the mother of a basically non-verbal nine-year-old boy with autism who loves church, I get to think about all of this a lot.

If worship is providing ways to access God, then its important to think outside the box, the church box, and even the reading/neurotypical box. Where can we allow creative access to God? Where can we open the door to the work of the Holy Spirit? Where can we learn from other individuals’ spirituality?

When we write liturgy, do we examine it to be the most accessible of texts? Does it include everyone? Does it encourage welcome? Do we include images to help our non-verbal individuals? Is the text large enough for everyone to read? Do we have a predictable enough structure to make everyone feel comfortable, but is it open enough for those who need wiggle room?

One example from my context is that we have been writing bulletins for our new inclusive worship community, TrailPraisers. We try to include many elements: moving and non-moving, verbal and non-verbal, loud and quiet, participatory and martyr.

Examining and re-examining how and when and where we do liturgy is essential to expanding our growing knowledge as to how to access God. That’s where a series like this is essential, and I am hopeful that there will someday be ways for us to conference/create/congregate for a larger and exciting way to talk about worship and access together. Hopefully this blog series provides insight and inspiration for you to find more ways to access God and provide that access to others as well.


Katy Stenta is the pastor of a bigger-on-the-inside church in Albany, NY where she has been the solo pastor for 8+ years. She is the mother of 3 children – Franklin, almost 11; Westley, almost 9; and Ashburn, 7 – and is married to a librarian, Anthony. She loves big and creative ideas and to read as much fantasy as possible. She is also the co-founder of TrailPraisers, a developing inclusive worship experience for all faiths, ages & abilities.

Holy Spirit, Is That You?

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 Sam Hamilton-Poore

A most important responsibility for church leaders is learning how to notice the movement of the Holy Spirit, and then respond to the movement in ways that are faithful. Whenever we gather, we call upon Christ’s promise of the Spirit’s presence and guidance — we hope that our discussion and decisions will be Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. But how do we recognize when it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit that is moving us, guiding us?

I’ve found help for this question in the words about the Holy Spirit from the Gospel of John and the letter of 1st John.1 Again and again we’re told in the Johannine witness that the Holy Spirit is inextricably linked to Jesus Christ, and links us to him. The Spirit is Jesus’ emissary, we’re told, who will bring to mind all that Jesus has said and done (John 14:25-26). The Spirit is our counselor, who advocates on behalf of Jesus and enables us to testify to him (John 15:26). Different spirits exist, not all of which may be holy — therefore all spirits must be tested (1 John 4:1); and the standard or norm by which the various spirits are tested is Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh (1 John 4:2). The Spirit is often manifested in an inner experience by which we recognize Jesus or God (1 John 3:24). And an essential mark of being grounded in God by the Holy Spirit is a sense of confidence toward God as a response to God’s love (1 John 4:16b-17).

As I understand these words from John and 1st John, this means that whenever or however we perceive that our thoughts our actions are being drawn closer to the pattern of the life, death, resurrection, and power of Christ, we are in fact being moved by the Holy Spirit. It’s not simply a matter of how I may feel about something, or any surge of enthusiasm for a particular decision — but whether we are being drawn more closely to the person and work of Christ himself. If our discernment is leading us into ways of being that more clearly reflect Christ, the Word Made Flesh, then this discernment is being guided by the promised Holy Spirit.

It may be worthwhile to ask ourselves something like this: How does this decision (or ministry or activity or expenditure) reflect Christ? How does what we do as a church and as Christians embody the ministry of Christ—the Word Made Flesh—in our community and world? Yes, whether it’s Session or committees, there are usually a wide variety of things to be considered—from boilers to by-laws. But at heart, we gather to try to discern the will of Christ for our congregations and community — and such discernment requires attention to the movement of the Spirit. And this Spirit, more than anything, wants to connect us more firmly to Christ himself: his life, his witness, his power, his justice, his compassion.

May you perceive and follow the Spirit throughout your life and service to the church — the Spirit that links us inextricably to the Risen Christ among us!

1My thanks to Elizabeth Liebert and her wonderful book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Westminster John Knox 2008) for calling my attention to this. See pp. 14-15.


The Rev. Dr. Sam Hamilton-Poore is a Presbyterian minister and spiritual director who has served congregations in North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He is also author of “Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation,” and the former Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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.

The Stupendous Promises of God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cynthia Rigby

My favorite part of the Sarasota Statement is the preface.

This is, no doubt, because I am wired like the theologian I am. And theologians like to think about why it is we are saying what we are saying even before we say anything. Thus, the caricature of the theologian is that we talk and talk before getting to the point.

So, enough already. I’ll get to the point.

The reason we dare to imagine what things should look like in this world (in the Sarasota Statement and beyond) is because God has made us stupendous promises. God’s Kingdom will come to earth as it is in heaven, we confess. Lions and lambs will lie down together. Tears will be wiped from suffering and grieving eyes. We will join Christ at the Table and hunger will be no more.

The reason we risk working toward realizing these promises in our world, today, is because Christ invites us not only to watch and pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but to join with him in doing the will of God that advances it. “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” Jesus says to the disciples, inviting us to live and act in the world as those who “know what the master is doing” (Jn. 15:15).

And the reason we submit to re-forming how we understand what it looks like actively to claim and enact God’s promises is because we believe the Holy Spirit continues working in us, in the context of the Christian community, conforming us to the image of Christ.

I’m sure the Sarasota Statement gets some things wrong, when it comes to the specifics of the Kingdom that is coming. I am even more sure we have left out a great deal, and have been humbled and excited by the good suggestions and queries Christian siblings have sent our way.

But what we get right is the affirmation that God’s Kingdom will come. What we get right is that we are called to do the will of the God who will bring it. What we get right is that we, as the children of God, are invited to claim the promise, to imagine it, to step into it, to live it.

We do these things, on this very day, with echoes of resurrection celebration ringing in our hearts: He is risen! He is risen indeed! And we remember, as our risen Lord instructed his disciples, that the journey is not over. The Holy Spirit will come upon us, and even greater things will yet be done. In the power of this remarkable promise, again, we join hands together to watch and pray, hope and listen, imagine and act. To God be the glory! Now: on with the work of the church!


Cynthia L. Rigby has been teaching theology at Austin Seminary since 1995. She holds a BA from Brown University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of “The Promotion of Social Righteousness” (Witherspoon) and “Holding Faith” (Abingdon, forthcoming). She is one of four general editors for Westminster John Knox Press’s new lectionary commentary series, “Connections,” which will be coming out in nine volumes over the next few years.

Moments When the Spirit Moves

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Are

Sometimes new life lands in your lap like a summer thunderstorm- strong, sudden, and powerful.

Other times, new life shows up like a melody, or a sleepy cat- waking up, stretching its bones, and assuming its position back in the sun, back in your memory.

For me, the NEXT Church National Gathering this past February felt like that. All of that.

tsr_4819_webNEXT was an IV drip of coffee, energizing me in ways that I forgot I knew. However, it also was a reminder that the Holy Spirit moves, adding strength and memories to weary muscles.

I think we all have those moments- moments when the Spirit moves, and all of the sudden you know you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Those moments slide past us like water, taking with them the frustrations of previous aches and pains.

For me, some of those ministry moments have involved warm cups of coffee on church steps with the homeless folks that slept there the night prior. Some of those moments have involved youth group, where the “cool” kid stood up for the kid with autism, and it was holy ground. Others have involved 1,000 youth at Montreat, or three other young adults at bible study.

I crave the certainty of those moments.

I know that currently, seminary is where I am called to be, and I feel invigorated by that. However, my view of ministry has changed since being in seminary. I have struggled to discern where I would fit into a church that is both saturated in tradition, yet simultaneously growing and evolving, and at times have missed the calm certainty that comes only with sensing the Spirit.

In the seminary world, there is an acute sense of change in the air. The church is stretching. We cannot all find jobs, and when we do, they often look different than what we had imagined. We are being forced to tap into our creative side and our risk-tasking side, as we dream up bi-vocational ministries, new church developments, and fundraising tricks to cover the cost of a full time salary.  Pension plans are not a sure thing, and residencies provide sweet relief as Christian education and associate positions dwindle.

Taking risks and leaning into creativity is an exciting prospect, but it is also vulnerable, a little scary, and very exhausting.

This year’s NEXT conference was the first time that I have truly felt that this risk-taking creative solution making reality might actually be a blessing, and not strictly a challenge. For over the course of three days, I watched story after story of real ministry, that is faithful to the gospel and loving to the core, unfold before my eyes. I watched countless doors open, with new ministry models, and imaginative ways for old churches to continue faithful work.

For a long time, I have felt as if engaging in creative ministry models would be my uphill battle, but at NEXT, I was overwhelmed with how much is already being done, with how smooth those roads were being made.

As I walked through the big wooden doors at the end of the three days, I told myself- “this has to be the most exciting time to be in ministry, because there are no closed doors.”

I don’t know if it’s factually true – that this could be deemed the most exciting season.  

However, what I do know, is that it was one of those moments I crave. It was one of those moments where the Spirit moved, and all of the sudden, I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be- dreaming, hopefully, about the future of the church.

Those three days gave me new life, and it sounded like a melody, and felt like a sweet summer rainstorm. I walked away humming to myself, “What have I to dread? What have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?” For I am convinced, this has to be one of the most exciting times to be in ministry.  After three days at NEXT, how could I dream otherwise?


sarah are

Sarah Are is a second year student at Columbia Theological Seminary pursuing a Master of Divinity. She is a book-worm, a food blogger, and a busy-body. Sarah was raised on sweet tea and in church pews, and re-microwaves her coffee every morning because she knows the world is cold. Kansas City and Richmond, Virginia are the two places she calls home; however discovering somewhere new makes for a wonderful day in her book.

Meeting The Holy Spirit Again (for the 61st Time)

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Amy Williams Fowler

Holy Spirit and Pentecost Hymns in Glory to God

2015BirdI was baptized on Pentecost in June, 1954, at the First Presbyterian Church of Woodbury, NJ. Amy, meet the Holy Spirit. But I grew up in Presbyterian churches that were uneasy with references to the third person of Trinity, with the exception of the Apostles’ Creed recited on Communion Sundays. I don’t remember any Pentecost celebrations until the 1980’s. While I was under care in preparation for ordination I was asked each year by the Presbytery’s Committee, “What Christian doctrine causes you the most difficulty?” My answer was the same for four consecutive years: The Holy Spirit. Each year the committee members responded: “Yes, me, too.”

After I was ordained, when I experienced the touch of God’s Spirit on my spirit in real time, it occurred to me that this might be what people had been talking and writing about for so many centuries. I was able to revisit times of real grace (pre-ordination), and to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not realize it.”

When I was serving as an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA, in the early 1990’s, we learned a beautiful Pentecost hymn, set to a tune arranged by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Come Down, O Love Divine (Glory to God, 282). The text is dated c. 1367, and it is lovely.

Come down, O Love Divine; Seek out this soul of mine, and visit it with you own ardor glowing.

O Comforter, draw near; within my heart appear, and kindle it, your holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.

And let your glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling.

For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place, wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

When I moved to Indianapolis and began interim ministry, I vowed that I would share this wonderful hymn with every congregation I would serve. I am delighted to see that it “made the cut” as one of sixteen Gift of the Holy Spirit hymns in Glory to God. It is an impressive collection of new and old hymns — well worth singing on days other than Pentecost, too.

During my interim ministry in Anderson, IN, we sang Come Down on Pentecost, and one of the members met me in the narthex to say, “Dear, we only like the old hymns here.” I replied, “Then I know you enjoyed this one — written in the 14th century.” Actually, I was compelled to include it. I had heard it earlier in the Spring as I was driving up I-69. It was the day after the Oklahoma bombing, and one of firefighters was being interviewed on National Public Radio. He talked about carrying the babies’ bodies out of the daycare center, and how his life would be forever changed. I remember that he said something like: “I can’t say why this has happened, and all I can do is pray.” My eyes were so full of tears that I pulled over. The musical interlude that followed on NPR was the tune of Come Down, O Love Divine, thus proving that there is at least one Christian at NPR, despite what we have heard to the contrary.

I sang along: For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place, wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling. Amy, meet the Holy Spirit!


 

Amy-July-2014-214x300Amy Williams Fowler is the Presbytery Leader of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley.

Confessions of a GA Junkie

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Now that’s trust!

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have 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. 

By Leslianne Braunstein

In 2001 I took San Francisco Seminary’s GA Polity course and received an in-depth introduction into the history and workings of this august body. I was hooked. I’ve been to every General Assembly since. I am a certified GA Junkie. I’ve got the pin to prove it.

After years of drifting among the committees, I now pick a committee and follow its proceedings through open hearings, advocacy statements  and deliberations – right through its report to the Assembly during plenary.

What I love about General Assembly is the Spirit working in and through the commissioners. This is most evident in committee deliberations.  I have followed the committee workings of both the Polity and Peacemaking committees during times of great contention. As the commissioners entered the room I could see on their faces they had already made up their minds on issues of great importance to the church. Over the course of three days as they listened to testimony and discussed the issues among themselves, as they prayed and genuinely sought God’s face in their deliberations, I could actually see those firm convictions yielding to the leading of the Spirit. It was an amazing experience to witness.

Committee deliberations have taken many turns in the last few years. The efforts to build consensus on issues of substantial contention seem to run into obstacles and roadblocks at every turn. With good leadership, though, committees that worked primarily as “a committee of the whole” seemed to be able to build a deeper trust among their members than committees strictly relying on Roberts Rules. Roberts Rules, while a useful tool, simply does not engender mutual confidence among committee members. Being able to look in the eye your brother or sister in Christ and express your deepest hopes and fears seems to be the only way consensus can be reached.

Of course, letting committee members actually talk to one another during deliberations is messy and requires great listening skills from leadership. It takes great wisdom to know how to corral the energy in the room and bring it to a place of peace and understanding. In the end, in order to make the report, though, there must be a return to Robert’s Rules so that motions can be made and seconded and voted upon. I believe, though, the deliberative process is better served by other means.

Four years ago I monitored the Peacemaking Committee that, once again, deliberated whether or not the PC(USA) should divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. At the first open deliberation it was clear who was going to vote which way. However, during the next three days, as the commissioners listened to testimonies and the advice of Gen. Assembly agencies, and as they discussed what they heard in small groups and as a committee of the whole, you could feel the air change. In the end, the committee – one I believed was split in half – came to an overwhelming consensus on the direction the church should take in these matters. Of the almost 50 commissioners, only four felt strongly enough to want to file a minority report. Even with that, the next day when the committee met, the leader of that group stood and tearfully acknowledged that while they had reservations about the outcome the committee was recommending, they would not file a minority report “for the good of the church.” It was, he said, the Spirit’s leading; the report should stand on its own. I saw no visible victory behaviors – no high-fives or thumbs-up.  What I heard were heartfelt acknowledgements of the difficulty of their decision and prayer. Lots of prayer.

I think this result was only possible because the leadership of this committee was committed to building trust. I suspect she did a lot of this during the closed sessions; and, when the atmosphere grew tense, she found ways to incorporate trust building opportunities into the discussions as they proceeded.

I have no idea how this would work in plenary. While individual committees work to build trust among their members, it is clear when the reports get to the floor of the Assembly, the trust does not extend to other committees. It is clear that we do not trust one another. While the Spirit may work in my life, we are not too sure about what She is doing in yours.

As I write this, I wonder if our predicament isn’t that we don’t trust one another; rather, we really question whether God is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

It’s a dilemma, for sure.

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LB PhotoLeslianne Adkins Braunstein is an Interim Ministry Specialist in the PCUSA (National Capital Presbytery), a biblical storyteller and passionate GA Junkie. She was raised in New York City in what is the equivalent of the Southern Baptist Church. Leslianne joined Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1991 and she immediately fell in love with the connectional nature of the Presbyterian church (U.S.A.) – in all its beautiful organized messiness. Leslianne was a law office administrator before her call to ordained ministry which might explain her affinity to decent orderliness.

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“table” photo credit: Joi via photopin cc