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This Connectional Church

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 Angela Ryo

The first time I attended a NEXT Church National Gathering was three years ago. I was in my first call as a resident minister — a two-year position for recent seminary grads to explore every aspect of ministry in a large congregational setting. Going to the National Gathering was a natural progression of what I wanted out of ministry: to imagine a different church, a different set of tools for ministry, and life-transformative outcome and not just soul-draining output.

So I went for the first time, looking for others who were doing ministry differently and wanting to learn and connect with them. That particular year, there was a workshop titled, “Do Something Else.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for. It was led by three very energetic (I mean, “exactly-how-many-cups-of-coffee-did-you-have-this-morning?” energetic!) pastors who were doing ministry differently. They sure LOOKED crazy! But as crazy as they were, by the end of the workshop, I remember looking at one of them in particular — Nate — and thinking, “how cool would it be to work with someone like him, who can imagine a different way to BE the church!” But he was all the way from Delaware and I was in Michigan — fat chance that would ever happen!

The next time I saw Nate was the following year at the National Gathering. He had accepted a call at a church in Michigan and he was looking to put together a team. I had my first informal interview with him between workshops. And yup, you guessed it — he’s now my head of staff. That’s just a prime example of what NEXT Church is all about: bringing total strangers together in surprising and awesome ways!

This year, I came to the National Gathering with my boss — the one I met at a National Gathering two years ago. We dreamed together as we watched Ignite presentations about Pres House and Serve GR and asked each other, “Why aren’t we doing this at our church?” During David Leong’s keynote, we thought about how we can help our church be at the forefront of change by lifting up artists as prophets and adding fuel to their imagination. Having enjoyed my time with old and new friends, I left the National Gathering feeling rejuvenated and refreshed with a renewed hope for the Church.

I am no longer a resident minister whose job description is to be curious and to dream and experiment. In the busyness of everyday ministry, curiosity and imagination often take the back seat because they feel like luxuries I can’t afford. However, reflecting on my experience from the National Gathering, I am reminded of the importance of practicing the following in my ministry:

  1. Interaction with ALL KINDS of people (even those you think had too many cups of coffee!).
  2. Integration of what I learn from them into my daily life as well as my ministry (workshops are great at that).
  3. Imagination of what the church OUGHT to be and CAN be (Ignite conversations will do that for ya!).
  4. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be transformational rather than transactional in all of our relationships both in our church and community (David’s keynote hit the spot).
  5. Invitation to others to join and dream with me in my ministry and vice versa (that’s NEXT Church, y’all!).

I hope you will keep dreaming with me until the next National Gathering! And who knows? You might end up meeting your head of staff there just like I did!


Angela Ryo is an assistant pastor for Christian Formation at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In her previous life, she was a high school English teacher in Chicago, where she grew up. She loves to watch food documentaries and horror movies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which is which.

Energy, intelligence, IMAGINATION and love…

by Mary Harris Todd

At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging.  Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect.  Imagination must be inspired and sparked.  Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage.  It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?

While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout.  One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories.  That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings.  We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.

Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination.  We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression.   Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins.  We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God.  We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God.  We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.

In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church.  He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105).  The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation.  Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.

Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.  Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size.  Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry.  You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal.  Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.

Imagination is prayerful work indeed.  It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.