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The Surprise of Holy Chaos

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ken Evers-Hood

It’s Christmas Eve and what looked to be a mild winter front turned into a snow storm shutting down most of the neighborhood around the church you serve. What are you supposed to do now? Or, some other Sunday you’re leading worship and after reading the text, you scan the pulpit for the fantabulous sermon you wrote that now appears to be gonzo. Later, you would find out some “helpful” person removed it trying to tidy up the place, but what are you going to do in this moment? Or, you’re on vacation when death strikes. The family calls, wanting you to come back for the memorial. It’s possible, but you aren’t sure you should go. There are good reasons on both sides, and the way forward isn’t obvious.

These are all situations that I found myself in with little to no warning. Nobody told me how to cope with these situations in seminary… because no one could. Because you can’t plan for every possibility. No, in ministry as in life, the moment we’re done crafting our perfect plan is the moment the Holy Spirit seems to hit the holy chaos button and we find ourselves in the land of improvisation. Thankfully, there’s help! MaryAnn McKibben Dana won’t tell you exactly what to do when you’re surprised. She does something better. She steeps us in the wisdom of improv, teaching us how to carry ourselves more nimbly and how relate to others more gracefully when the bottom has fallen out.

There are SO many things I love about God, Improv, and the Art of Living. For starters, MaryAnn dispels the notion that improv is some kind of rare preserve for the wild and wacky. Rather than being a gift for the few, improv is a skill able to learned and practiced by all. It’s easy to think about shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and think improvisation is only for clever wits who can think on their feet. But improv, MaryAnn points out again and again, isn’t about thinking fast but learning how to be more present in whatever situation we’re given. And good improv isn’t finally blurting out that hilarious line you’ve been holding onto for just the right moment – it’s being in deep relationship with your partners, listening to what they are saying, and responding vulnerably and authentically to what it is they are offering. Improv is much harder than just going wild; improvising means learning to trust that we and our partners are enough if only we allow ourselves to really show up and enter fully into the moment.

Another thing I love is how MaryAnn thinks theologically in relation to improvisation. Improv isn’t just a way of thinking about ourselves and our own way of being in the world but a lens through which we learn more about Jesus in his full humanity and God. Take Jesus’ first miracle in John: turning water into wine. Unplanned. Jesus apparently had a schedule and didn’t think his time had come. But God and Mary thought otherwise. (Isn’t it nice to know that this happens even to Jesus?)

The Syrophoenician woman? A master class in improvisation on the part of both the woman and Jesus. Instead of a practically perfect Mary Poppins savior, give me a fully human Jesus who messes up, acknowledges his mistake, and course corrects every time. And while I can understand the desire for a God who has everything figured out, I’m much more at home with MaryAnn’s depiction of an improvising, co-creator who is working with us as much as through us.

And selfishly, MaryAnn is SUCH a good collector of stories and quotes. The book is filled with fascinating stories that, ahem, might have already wound up in a couple sermons inspired by her book. And it feels like that’s just the beginning, but I don’t really know. I’ll just have to see what the future sends my way. And, thanks to MaryAnn, this unknowing feels more exciting than frightening.


Ken Evers-Hood pastors Tualatin Presbyterian Church and is the author of The Irrational Jesus: Leading the Fully Human Church and The Irrational David: The Power of Poetic Leadership. Ken also serves as an adjunct faculty member teaching leadership at Duke Divinity School. When he’s not pastoring, writing, or teaching, he’s probably hanging out with his kids on a soccer field or the beautiful Pacific coast.

Collaborative Creation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Paul is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Paul Vasile

It’s a gift to catch glimpses of God-with-us in workshops and planning gatherings I facilitate for pastors, musicians, and worship leaders. As we read, sing, and improvise with scripture and liturgy, the Word takes on flesh in unexpected and beautiful ways, often with refreshing directness and authenticity as individuals bring their voice and story into dialogue with sacred text.

This fall, leaders of a newly bi-lingual congregation gathered for a day of worship, reflection, and worship planning. We used the morning to strengthen community through practices of listening and discernment then divided into small groups, each assigned an Advent lectionary Psalm and a part of the liturgy to create (call to worship, community liturgy, prayer petitions, etc). There were a few anxious asides as we began but energy and ideas quickly flowed in Spanish and English. Twenty minutes later, we reconvened to share the thoughtful, hand-crafted pieces of liturgy they created together. A feeling of mutual support and care was tangible, as was the joy of making something specifically for their community.

Wholeness and beauty are found in creative spaces like these, where individuals and groups create space for new ideas and visions to bubble up and out of our imaginations. There is also something profoundly risky and anxious about it. Creating is vulnerable work and can be chaotic and unresolved. Sometimes we take what we’ve created, set it aside, and need start over. It’s humbling.

But there are profound gifts to be found in creating collaboratively, especially for leaders of faith communities. How might our ministry shift as we practice being in the present moment, as we deepen our listening skills and trust our God-given instincts, and as we shift from an often-obsessive focus on product and outcome to appreciation for (and even delight in) the process? How might we learn to dialogue with voices of judgement or critique that often lead us to shut doors that need to be left open or even walked through?

This is what we’ll explore at our National Gathering post-Gathering seminar “Manna for the People.” We’ll burrow into Eastertide scripture passages through improvisation, singing, and play, with lots of space for individual and group reflection. We’ll create a gracious, generous space where our creative instincts are welcomed and affirmed, where we stretch and grow into new ways of leading and living. And we’ll find joy and pleasure in making something together, as we offer our voices and ideas to shape worship for our faith communities.

Like Mary, who welcomed unknown possibilities with a bold “Yes,” we’ll use the phrase “Yes, and…” in our improvisation work and see what unfolds. Like the shepherds watching their flocks, we’ll hear the proclamation “Do not fear!” and reflect deeply on ways the love of God liberates us from judgement and anxiety that prevent us from taking creative risks. Like the Wise Ones, we’ll listen to our intuition, trusting the wisdom of God and the community to take us where we need to go.

As the mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is ever waiting to be born.” We hope you’ll join us at the NEXT Church National Gathering in February as we make space for the Holy One to be known in our work and play. Join us for an extra day of exploration, growth, and collaboration, and discover new skills and practices to enrich your ministry. It will be a renewing, life-giving experience!


Paul Vasile is a freelance church musician, consultant, and composer based in New York City. A multitalented musician and dynamic worship leader, he is committed to building, renewing, and re-shaping faith communities through music and liturgy. Paul brings over twenty years of ministry experience to his work as a consultant, workshop facilitator, and teacher. He is excited to help congregations broaden their repertoire of sung prayer and praise, and to demonstrate how participatory music and liturgy can energize and unify worshippers from varied backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.

Joy, Sorrow, and Improv

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: LeeAnn is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by LeeAnn Hodges

Years ago a minister friend shared a phrase I that have held onto: “joyfully participate in the sorrows of life.” This paradoxical statement has gotten me through a great deal over the years, and speaks to the sort of joy I often find in the midst of advent.

True joy is a way of living that is not dependent upon the external circumstances of our lives and our world. And yet, it takes practice to learn how to embrace joy when things aren’t going the way we hoped or expected.

How do we live joyful lives in the midst of the divisions and pain in our world without discounting the suffering that is all too real? One of the more helpful tools I have found to expand my imagination and hold together both joy and sorrow is the practice of improv.

Improv is most often associated with the entertainment industry. But it is so much more than that. It is a practice that expands our ability to imagine and create. With improv we have the entire matrix of the universe from which to draw. With improv, anything is possible. Not even something as constant as gravity is a given. Where else in our lives are we granted the freedom to take our most creative selves out for a test drive?

One basic “rule” of improv is that we use everything. Even our mistakes. Especially our mistakes. The saying goes like this: “There are no mistakes in improv, only unsupported action.” With this reframing of our roles, my congregation is invited to become co-creators of the narrative of our community. When it comes to worship, on our better days we wait attentively for the surprising joy in our missteps, as room is created for an experience of the Holy One in what bubbles up through the cracks in our decently in order services. By embracing this posture to worship, I find myself better able to walk faithfully through the messiness of my own life out in the world, witnessing to the ways in which God’s grace flows in through the cracks of my own brokenness. And joy is more accessible, even in the most challenging of times.

As I consider the church that is being recreated in the shell of the old, I believe that the practice and play of improv has much to teach us. It is messy work, it is often painful, AND it is joyous.

This year, following the NEXT Church Gathering, I will join two of my more creative colleagues/playmates in offering a post-Gathering seminar where we will use some of these themes of improv to help us engage more deeply with the Eastertide gospel readings. I assure you that there will be a good bit of laughter. And if things go as expected, we will all leave better equipped to joyfully participate in the sorrows of life, guided by the Holy Muse that is at all times working within us and through us, drawing together heaven and earth.


LeAnn Hodges is the pastor of Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD and a leadership coach. Her favorite part of her job is hanging out with people, learning their stories, and, if possible, getting in a good belly laugh at least once a day. From those stories, she learns more and more about the depth of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. In her free time… oh, wait – LeAnn has three sons, ages 13, 7, and 5… but when she used to have free time, she enjoyed gardening, knitting, reading mysteries, and watching sci-fi shows with her husband of 23 years (who happens to be a high school physics teacher).

NEXT → PLAY

NEXT → PLAY 
Integrating ministry practice through improvisation

Date: Wednesday, March 15-Thursday, March 16—noon to noon

Facilitator: Lisa Kays, LICSW—Licensed Clinical Social Worker, improv instructor and improviser

Wrap up your time at the NEXT Church National Gathering with an additional day of debriefing, learning, and play! We know the “church that is becoming” will be flexible, dynamic, and agile. Improv can be an indispensable tool for leaders as we step into God’s future for the PC(USA).

Lisa Kays has worked with groups of clergy and mental health professionals in the Washington DC area, helping them approach their work with creativity, collaboration, and vision. Lisa will help us process what we’ve experienced at the National Gathering and give us tools for our work back home. And we’ll have lots of fun as well! No experience in improv necessary—just a willingness to come and say “yes” to a little bit of play.

Lisa will be joined by Paul Vasile, a freelance church musician, consultant, and composer based in New York City. Paul will be offering workshops at the National Gathering, and we’re excited to have him stay on to help lead NEXT → PLAY.

This event is a grassroots effort spearheaded by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a member of NEXT Church’s strategy team. Thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor, cost for participants is just $75, plus meals and the additional night’s lodging.

How to register:

  1. Secure your lodging for Wednesday night! NEXT Church’s negotiated rates are still in effect, but rooms may be limited.
  2. Register on Eventbrite (please note this is a separate registration page from the National Gathering. That registration info is here).
  3. (Optional but recommended) Join the Theology of Improv Facebook group to connect with other folks interested in theology, ministry and the spiritual life.
    See you in Kansas City!

NEXT PLAY Planning Team
Ryan Bradney, First Presbyterian Church, Winchester KY
MaryAnn McKibben Dana, free-range pastor, Reston VA
LeAnn Hodges, Oaklands Presbyterian Church, Laurel MD
Chris Keating, Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church, Wildwood MO
David Westerlund, Tierra Nueva, Burlington WA

Yes, And…

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.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana, pastor and writer, reflects on the intersections between the improv concept of “yes, and…” and the church. What is the “and” in your own context? How might you apply this basic tenet of improv to your own ministry setting? 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.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana — Church as Improv

Taking a cue from Stacy Johnson (Dallas 2012), MaryAnn begins to reimagine the gospel through the lens of improv. She traces the “rules” of improv and notes the ways in which church communities might begin to live by these rules of engagement.

MaryAnn is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. This keynote presentation was given at the Rochester, NY regional gathering on November 5, 2012.

Ashley Goff – Liturgy as Improv

Ashley Goff on Liturgy as Improv [Part of the 2013 NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte, NC.]

Leadership at the Speed of Change and the Call to Improvise

Brief Reflections on an Awesome Western and Central New York Next Regional Conference

by John Wilkinson

The second annual Western and Central New York Next Regional Conference was held Monday, November 5 at Third Church in Rochester NY. A special word of thanks to the Third Church volunteers and staff, and particularly Becky D’Angelo-Veitch, for their hospitality. Nearly 100 were in attendance, and we shared a rich and full day of networking, visioning and connecting.

speedSix presbyteries were represented, primarily from Western New York, Cayuga-Syracuse, Geneva and Genesee Valley. Ministers, elders, educators, musicians and members were all present – many ages and church sizes as well.

Worship grounded us in God’s vision in Romans 12 and reminded us, though prayer and music, that God has a future in store for us.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana provided a terrifically creative and supportive keynote presentation, “Leadership at the Speed of Change.” There were many, many takeaways from her presentation, particularly around the notion of the art and practice of improvisation. Her thesis statement both challenged and comforted us: “The church will continue to flourish to the extent that it can learn to improvise in a constantly changing culture.” Using a nifty Prezi presentation, MaryAnn drew on the notion of improvisation outlined in part by Patricia Ryan Madsen’s book Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Both the concepts of Madsen’s book and MaryAnn’s appropriation of them will bear much fruit as the Next Church conversations continue to unfold.

National Next director Jessica Tate was present and shared the overall vision and directions of Next Church – it was a great opportunity to connect the national conversation with the particular and contextual needs of our region.

Workshops covered a broad base of ideas and needs — some hands on, some more conceptual. We discussed community organizing, mission, our connectional church (as the Synod of the Northeast and various New York presbyteries evolve), and various forms of practices of ministry.

Open source/open space time in the afternoon allowed for lively, group-generated discussion. Topics included worship, improvisation, Board of Pensions changes, local mission, Next Church, and new faith communities.

Participants reflected later on the gathering:

“…the conversations in NEXT are another manifestation of the way we’re learning to live out the Great Commission anew; they have synergy with other more structured processes for thinking about evangelism and growth (e.g., New Beginnings, etc.) that many of us are involved with, but allow us to think about them with fresh eyes.  NEXT brings in the innovative voices of folks in the field, especially those of younger adults, in a way that our polity isn’t designed to do.”

“…NETX is building a network if not a community where Presbyterians can go to imagine, enhance, expand ministry. The old places to do this are either gone or largely ineffective or too narrowly restricted…”

Presbyterians in Western and Central New York look forward to building on our connections in the region, exploring the particular needs of our local contexts. At the same time, we look forward to connecting with the national Next conversation for resources. Throughout it all, the vision of improvisation seems compelling and timely.


John WilkinsonJohn Wilkinson is the Pastor of Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester. John has been active in the PC(USA) in many ways: a member of the PUP Taskforce, on the Executive Committee of the Covenant Network, and on the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. John believes that the church is the best place for people to gather to ask the deepest, most profound questions of faith and life. He is committed to urban ministry, the great hymns of the church and Presbyterian theology, as well as baseball, Bruce Springsteen and late night TV!